The Independent: Revival on the Menu for Rediscovered Gem
REVIVAL ON THE MENU FOR REDISCOVERED GEM “WHEN I FIRST VISITED THIS REGION, I WAS INTRODUCED TO THE INDEPENDENT RESTAURANT BY A LOCAL REAL ESTATE AGENT WHO RAVED ABOUT THEIR MOUTHWATERING FOOD. I HAVE TO AGREE THAT THE VARIETY OF DISHES ON OFFER IS SCRUMPTIOUS. WE OFTEN VISIT GEMBROOK. WE LOVE ITS QUAINT VILLAGE CHARM AND LONG SCENIC WALKS ALONGSIDE THE RAILWAY TRACK TO WORK UP AN APPETITE. THE INDEPENDENT HAS CERTAINLY PUT THIS PLACE ON THE MAP AS ONE OF THE KEY REASONS TO VISIT MORE OFTEN. THERE’S A RELAXED AMICABLE BANTER WITH THE STAFF & THE AMBIANCE IS INVITING. I HAD NEVER BEEN TO AN ARGENTINEAN RESTAURANT BEFORE, SO I HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO EXPECT. I HAVE SINCE RETURNED AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN… IT’S NO SURPRISE THEY’VE WON AWARDS. THEIR FINE FUSION OF DISHES ARE NOT ONLY DELICIOUS, BUT WITH ALL THOSE FRESH, FLAVOURSOME VEGETABLES, MY BODY ALWAYS FEELS TOTALLY ‘NOURISHED’ AFTER DINING HERE IN THE HILLS” »
The Independent Jenny – Member of Eastern Dandenong Ranges Association for business & tourism
Enter Mauro Callegari, acclaimed Argentinean born chef with international credentials and a vision to open a boldly pioneering restaurant in the hills. Mauro was head chef of True South, a fine dining restaurant serving up his menu of modern Argentinean cuisine, when a chance conversation with Sam Gordon of Robert Gordon Pottery, got the ball rolling. The Gordon family had recently acquired an old hardware store on Gembrook main street; Mauro was ready to hang up his apron at True South and bring his vision to life.
The Independent opened its doors 2014 and was an instant hit. The vast warehouse had been converted into a rustic fine dining setting that manages the delicate balancing act of combining elegance and sophistication with a soul-satisfying warmth and comfort. Soft lighting directly over tables brings a sense of intimacy despite the open layout; personable and highly trained waitstaff are on hand to explain the share-plate presentation of dishes, and guide you to the perfect wine-pairing, all the while making you feel like one of the family; meanwhile, modern South American music provides a relaxed ambience that wraps around the whole cosy setting.
Mauro and his right-hand-man, Sous Chef Manuel Santeiro, can be seen over in the open kitchen, deftly putting together meals with a kind of easy grace that belies the intense effort and attention to detail that goes into every dish. This prompt yet unflustered air is carried by all members of the team which Mauro says are crucial to the functioning of the restaurant; from the chefs and kitchen hands to the waiters and bar tenders, each person works together to ensure smooth, flawless service. Mauro’s pride in the team is evident as he says, “Mauro the chef is nobody without the whole team.”.
Of course, the main event is the food. For those unfamiliar with Argentinean cuisine, it may be hard to know what to expect. Argentina is famous for its barbecue-style meats, hearty stews, pasta and empanadas. Mauro grew up cooking alongside his mother in Argentina, working for the family business from the age of ten or eleven.
He combines this heritage with the skills and knowledge gleaned from years in the industry working alongside the likes of Michelin star chef Chris Galvin, Sofitel’s Marcus Moore, and Raymond Capaldi of Fenix.
The result is a menu of Argentine classics that have been transformed so that every bite is a revelation. Lime cured scallops that melt in the mouth; impossibly tender BBQ pork belly that comes alive with its topping of slaw and sweet apple sauce; even the carrots, with their smoked maple glaze, coriander puree and crunchy peanuts have made themselves a favourite among regulars. And just when you think you have indulged your senses and your belly to capacity, there’s the dessert: cinnamon donuts nestled in creamy dulce de leche, a thick milk-based caramel sauce; house-made mfruit sorbets and ice cream; a baked dulce de leche custard.
But if you ask Mauro, it’s the specials board that is the real heart and soul of The Independent. I sat down with Mauro and the restaurant’s co-owner, Jessica Zamora, and they explained how they not only seek out local, seasonal produce, but often locals will bring in homegrown goods, such as a box of duck eggs, another time a dozen kilograms of chestnuts. Mauro relishes the opportunity to flex his culinary skills and draw on his creativity, constantly developing new dishes to surprise and delight patrons.
This year has proven especially surprising – not just for The Independent, but the world at large, as we come to terms with the ongoing pandemic.
The hospitality industry has had to adapt, and Mauro and Jess have been amongst those radically changing the way they do business in order to stay afloat and continue to meet the needs of the community. With dining restrictions in place, The Independent has been offering a takeaway menu that goes well above and beyond your standard fish and chips or pizza. By popular request, they have even managed to provide a local home delivery service.
The pandemic response is not the only way that The Independent continues to evolve and grow as a business. In July 2018, the restaurant opened its private function room, which seats up to twenty-seven and is available for parties, functions, workshops and meetings. It has become a popular site for business groups seeking to host all-day events in beautiful leafy surrounds. Going beyond the walls of the restaurant, Jess and Mauro hope to offer off-site event catering in the future.
Walk down Gembrook’s main street on a sunny weekend now, and it’s a very different scene to what I encountered all those years back. The Independent was the first spark in a blaze of change that has swept the little town from one end to the other. Old shops have been updated and new shops have been built. The new Gembrook Leisure Park is a vibrant and popular play space for children, while the adjoining Skate Park is the place to be for active teens and young adults. Puffing Billy now stops by regularly during the warmer months. It’s well worth a trip up into the hills for a visit, starting with a meal at the rustic, homely Argentinean restaurant that put the first blush of life back in the cheek of Gembrook.