Nathan Tomkins, Whalebone Wharf

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Nathan, you are the owner and chef behind one of Port Macquarie’s iconic eating spots: Whalebone Wharf. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your restaurant?    

I’ve lived in Port Macquarie for most of my life, travelling nationally and abroad but always returning to my roots. In the 1990s my dad took me for a beer at a little restaurant on the outskirts of town that I didn’t know existed, called the Whalebone Wharf. From that day forward, my life has never been the same. Running the restaurant for over 20 years, it has been my utmost passion. The Hastings River is in my blood; as kids, we spent all our time fishing, crabbing, cruising around in tinnies and exploring.

The Whalebone Wharf is now one of the most iconic places on the Mid North Coast. We are a must see for tourists, and I attribute this to our stunning location, fresh produce and the care we take with our guests. We are the only place in the area where you can enjoy the freshest quality seafood on the water, arrive by seaplane, or choose live lobsters and mud crabs. The business was first opened in 1971 and has absolutely flourished over the years. I’m proud to be a part of the location’s spectacular history and plan on continuing this legacy for many years to come.

I hear you are currently undergoing some major renovations to your site? What have you got planned?

The restaurant is about to be relaunched as one of the most sought-after locations on the coast. We have a world-class location and world-class chefs; it only seemed right that the building should reflect this also. We are going to catapult the restaurant into the 21st Century.

We have enlisted the help of renowned designer Michelle McCracken from Hamptons Design Co. and with the incorporation of a new breakfast menu, take away coffee, and all-day dining. Our level of products and service will be exceptional.

I am so proud to live in such a beautiful part of the world. In most cases it’s the driving force behind many people’s choice to live here, and we don’t spend enough time enjoying it. It is my quest to make sure locals benefit from living on the Hastings River – showcasing its beauty whilst providing you with an outstanding culinary experience.

You are hosting a satellite event at this year’s Tastings on Hastings festival called Forager’s Dinner. What delicious morsels will diners be treated to at this event?

We are very excited to be involved in Tastings on The Hastings 2017 – a match made in heaven, considering the strong relationship the Whalebone Wharf has with the Hastings River. We have been working around the clock devising a menu which will take your tastebuds on spectacular culinary journey.

The Forager’s Dinner will be an introduction to our new Executive Hatted Chef Peter Ridland, showcasing his expertise and knowledge. Peter is the former Executive Chef of Jonah’s, with experience in Europe and has an exceptional knowledge of food. As the name suggests, the chefs will be foraging produce from the local area and incorporating these ingredients into each course. The rich and vibrant Hastings River houses unique, delectable produce, and my extensive knowledge of the area will bring this to the table. Each course will be matched with beer and wine. The event is sure to sell out quickly, and we urge people to get in early, as seats are limited.

When it comes to compiling a menu, what are some of the considerations involved for you? 

When compiling a menu, I firstly consider seasonal and regional availability. I want to give customers the opportunity to enjoy the best quality food available. If a delivery shows up and the produce isn’t fresh – we’ll send it back.

Sustainability is also very important to us. We have our own bio-garden supplying us fresh ingredients daily, and we were proud to be finalists in the category for Excellence in Sustainability at this year’s Chamber Business Awards.

It’s important for us to support local businesses; it has a flow on effect for the community and is a win-win in many areas.

After achieving these objectives, the Executive Chef and I will work together in analysing costings, to ensure our provisions are financially viable.

What advice would you offer to other people looking to open a restaurant or café in a regional area?

First and foremost, know your area and understand your market, especially the fluctuations in tourism trade. In a tourist driven town such as Port Macquarie, planning is everything. You need to be forecasting and budgeting with a fine-tooth comb.

Secondly, explore the availability of local produce. Know what’s available to you. A lot of regional areas boast an array of provincial suppliers and growers. Develop these relationships and foster them.

You also need to put a lot of your resources into recruiting and maintaining quality staff. It can chew up a lot of your time in this area if not undertaken correctly. Remember, you may need to look at recruiting employees from metro areas and be prepared to assist them in that transition.

You also need to look after your staff. Reward them, respect them and always thank them for their hard work.

Customer retention is extremely important. Ensure that you have strategies in place that develop and foster relationships with your customer base. A restaurant/café business is not what it used to be. Statistics show people now spend 50% more of their food expenditure on eating out compared to 30 years ago. Therefore, food outlets are replacing the social interplay of the family dinner table – it’s where people congregate.

And last but not least – location, location, location!

And finally, if you could invite any three business people to lunch, who would they be and why would you invite them?

Firstly, I would have to invite Marco Pierre White. He’s a brilliant chef and has always had my respect and admiration. I think it’s because his style is exact, “to-the-point” and highly disciplined. I’ve worked with chefs in Europe who have been trained by him, and they were the best I’ve ever worked with. A lot of people don’t realise he trained many well-known chefs, such as Gordon Ramsay and Curtis Stone. The guy’s a legend.

Secondly, I would have to invite Elle MacPherson. We go back a long way, Elle and I. She doesn’t know me yet, but I could definitely make the time to introduce myself. Not only do I admire her beauty, but also have a lot of respect for her entrepreneurial skills; following her modelling career, she has diversified into other ventures and continued to balance this with being a mother.

Lastly, and most importantly, the person I most respect and admire; my dad. He has always guided me in the right direction, whilst teaching me respect and commitment. His wisdom has an incredible grounding effect on me. His words of advice as I was growing up inspire me to this day: “Don’t wait for your boat to sail in, row out and meet it’.’

Thanks for your time, Nathan.

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