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A PROFILE ON LAURA AT PT. LEO ESTATE BY OFF CARTE

OFF CARTE – NOURISH THE MIND AND BODY

Photography by Odin Wilde

Modern life can leave us feeling burnt out, overwhelmed, and under-nourished. But through cultivating a sense of self-awareness, we can learn to slow down and tune in. To honour the act and art of creative dining.

Enter Laura, an artistic dining experience at Pt. Leo Estate that is named after the seven-metre high cast-iron sculpture by Jaume Plensa that looks into the dining space. Culinary director of the restaurant, Josep Espuga, has cultivated an ethos of championing foragers, gardeners, and farmers through a focus on local flavours, curated in harmony with the seasons.

‘Laura had a few working titles before it opened, but the name was self-evident once Jaume Plensa’s sculpture was installed,’ explains service standards business manager, Ainslie Lubbock. ‘Laura is an extremely powerful piece with a peaceful repose that we aim to reflect in the dining room. The external light, changing cloudscape, and broad horizon also assist to create a space with a sense of the gentle passage of time. All the details in the room are designed to be restrained and to focus the guests’ attention on their dining companions, Josep’s gorgeous food, or the remarkable scenery outside.’

In seeking to explore the notion of nourishment that encompasses both mind and body, JANE recently visited the dining room at Laura, where Lubbock tells us that the art of creative dining is all about avoiding ‘fads and overworked concepts while still delivering a dining experience that feels original and authentic. It’s about understanding the integrity of ingredients and story, [then] supporting this with great service,’ she says. ‘Artful dining should allow enough space for guests to discover the experience for themselves and find joy in it.’

It is for this reason that the team at Laura also seek to understand each guest’s own story—the reason behind their visit and their personal level of engagement—in order to create a uniquely tailored experience. ‘The kitchen team works incredibly hard to knit threads of fabulous ingredients and stories throughout the menu so that these details are compelling and truly draw the guest into the experience,’ Lubbock adds. ‘We love to ensure the guest journey at Laura encompasses every facet of the property too—from the point of arrival, to full access to the sculpture park, and our wine experience.’

To get a sense of this artful dining experience, set amidst Victoria’s stunning Mornington Peninsula, Off Carte spoke with Josep Espuga about what it really means to nourish the mind and body.

OFF CARTE: We love that you curate your menu in harmony with the seasons. Can you tell us a bit more about how you approach this at Laura?
JOSEP ESPUGA: So, our menus change with the season, but we don’t change the menu completely every season; we make it a bit more organically. For some of the ingredients we use, the season is really short—it’s just one or two months sometimes—so we change the dishes when an ingredient runs out, and that way, there is always something moving on the menu.

What are some examples of ingredients with a really short season that you use?
An example right now is truffle. We are using black truffles from Red Hill but also from Tasmania and WA. We’re using Australian truffles, but our priority is always to use Victorian. So yeah, the season is just a couple of months. Another one would be the sea urchin from Port Phillip Bay. That season is quite short as well—a couple of months only. And there is a flower that I really like using in winter, which is the violet, and it is only around for a month and a half or so.

It must be so special, during those times, to be able to get your hands on such great ingredients and really hero them in the dishes.
Yeah, it is very special when they come, and it is special when they leave. It is always sad to see them go, but you know they will come back next year. And we try, every season, to come up with new dishes using the same ingredients. We try to push ourselves, in a way, so that we don’t repeat the dishes from previous years.

That’s beautiful. And are there any particular local ingredients within the Mornington Peninsula area that you really love using?
Oh yes, so many. From the Peninsula, an ingredient that I’m very excited to use again this year is the peas from Five Tails. We get these beautiful sugar snap peas, which you can eat raw, and they are super sweet and crunchy. The cherries from the Peninsula are really beautiful as well. Any berries, really, because the Peninsula is very rich in berries. Then what’s really exciting at the end of summer are the tomatoes from Daniel’s Run, which is one of the farms we work with. The tomatoes they grow are incredible, so we always have them on the menu. Then the crayfish is something that we usually get at the end of spring [and] beginning of summer from Port Phillip Bay. We work with a local diver who gets them for us from Phillip Island.

Yes, we wanted to ask you about the local producers that you work with and why you think it is so important to foster these relationships.
Well, it is important because I think we all learnt during COVID and lockdowns that having strong relationships within the local community makes us stronger. In Victoria, we couldn’t go any further than five kilometres from home, so you really had to have good relationships with your neighbours and with the local community. It is a little bit the same for us on the Mornington Peninsula. It’s not like being in the city where you can just drive to a shop and get something. When you are in a rural area, you really need to work with the local people you have around you to try to be as sustainable as possible and as independent as possible. But if I work with a local farmer and I run out of something or I’m running low on something, I can give them a call and they are happy to drive five or ten minutes to deliver something.

And not only that, but the other factor is that we are supporting our community, so we are making it stronger. We are making sure that we invest in our community, that what we spend stays on the Peninsula, and that makes the area and its people grow as well. Also, it’s a good way for us to show what the Peninsula has to offer, because it’s very rich in produce and ingredients. It’s such a special place.

We have only visited there once, but it is amazing.
Yeah, it’s very unique. And there is a microclimate here—or different microclimates, actually, within the same Peninsula—so a lot of the ingredients we use in the restaurant, in Laura and also Pt. Leo, come from just 20 minutes’ drive away. That includes things from the ocean like mussels, crayfish, sea urchin, and a lot of seaweed that we get from here as well, then mushrooms like pine mushrooms, or truffles in winter, to all the berries and the citrus fruits. It all comes from just 20 minutes’ drive away, and the quality is amazing.

And because everything’s so local and seasonal, the flavours must be so much more incredible than something that has been sent from a great distance.
Yeah, that’s correct. The soil we have around the Peninsula is very good soil; our farmers are very happy with it and the way it performs. That’s one of the reasons I really like living and working on the Peninsula as well: everything tastes like it should, and the ingredients we’re getting from our small producers and the small farmers are incredible. The flavours are incredible. So, it’s a big responsibility for us as chefs to preserve that on the plate, not to do too much to the ingredients so we can preserve that uniqueness, flavour, colour, and aroma.

It’s a more intuitive way of eating as well, because our bodies are designed to thrive off the foods that are in season.
Yeah, well, this is how we used to be before globalisation and before it was so easy to move a fruit from Thailand to the States. You were fed with whatever was around you, and it makes sense, so we preserve the seasons as much as we can. I don’t like bringing truffles from Europe, for example, when it is summer here. When we can get them from Australia, we can get them from around us. I think it’s also a way for us to share this knowledge. As a restaurant, we have the responsibility to pass this knowledge on to our guests and for them to learn a bit more about the ingredients and the seasons. So we are using the restaurant as a platform to pass that knowledge on from our farmers.

The pace of modern life is just crazy these days as well. Why do you believe it is so important for us to slow down and tune in with a thoughtful meal, enjoyed in a beautiful space?
Well, I think it’s important because it gives you time to think about the moment and to think about the ingredients and what they represent. You can learn from that, [which is why] our team communicates a lot to the guest, explaining where our ingredients come from, how they have been treated, and why they are on the plate. I think it’s important, when guests come here, for them to [understand] what they are eating and why it is on the plate, because this knowledge also makes you think about the ingredients [you use] and what you buy in the supermarket. [We shouldn’t just be] buying something because the colour looks good or because the packaging looks good. I think it is important to understand where our food comes from, how it’s made, and what it brings to our bodies, because that’s knowledge that we can pass onto the next generation. What we put in our bodies is so important that we need to learn from it and pass the knowledge on as much as we can. 

Absolutely! This probably helps people enjoy their meal so much more in the moment but then also to rethink their approach to food outside of their experience at the restaurant.
Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, it is a restaurant, and some guests come here just to have a nice meal and to have their own time. But we give them the option if they want to interact more and if they want to learn more about what they are eating. They have that option because we have the knowledge and we can pass it onto them.

Yeah, it’s important to start the conversation. But Laura also looks like a very relaxing space in which to enjoy a meal too, and this feels quite relevant to the sculpture that it’s named after. It seems like a very meditative work.
Yes, it’s very serene, and that’s exactly how it is at Laura. It’s a very calm room with all the windows open to the sculpture park. But it’s also open to the weather as well. Like, it’s really beautiful here, and I always say to our guests that it doesn’t matter if it’s sunny or it’s raining or there’s a storm outside; it’s always beautiful. Even when we have storms here, it’s really special because you feel like you are protected from the storm outside and you have food, you have wine.

Those are our favourite kinds of spaces: the ones that showcase nature in whatever state she is in that day. It sounds like a very creative atmosphere, so what does the art of creative dining mean to you?
Well, we are creative in so many ways—like for our menu, we try to find inspiration in different places. For example, some of our dishes in Laura are inspired by sculptures that we have in the sculpture park. Some of our dishes are inspired by memories from childhood. And some of our dishes are inspired by the local ingredients we use.

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