Biota dish
Biota Dining: sustainable food without rules and boundaries

James Viles, Executive Chef and Owner of Biota Dining at Bowral in the NSW Southern Highlands, has turned his dream of a foodservice establishment focusing on sustainable local produce into reality.
Since opening some 12 months ago, Biota has been nominated for Best New Restaurant in the 2011 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide and Regional Restaurant of the Year in the 2012 Australian Gourmet Traveller’s Restaurant Awards, and has won Time Out’s Best Outta Town Restaurant for 2011.
For James Biota is a project that has taken him back to where he began in foodservice – “I actually started off working in a butchery in Bowral when I was about 12, every afternoon after school. When that finished I went to work at a five star hotel in the Southern Highlands called Milton Park, then at the age of 14 or 15 I was offered an apprenticeship.”
It wasn’t long before James was working in Sydney, followed by stints in Hong Kong, Shanghai and then the Middle East. “I went to work at Jumeirah Emirates Towers at a restaurant called Views, which I ran for four years – it was the number two restaurant in Dubai, second only to Gordon Ramsay’s Verre. After that I went to Oman where I was in charge of five restaurants for a company called GHM, which has some of the most exclusive hotels in the world, in very obscure places. In this particular one we designed all the kitchens and refitted them out from scratch – we had a team of 110 chefs and I was there for two years. Then I decided to come home.”
The plans for what eventually developed into Biota had been taking shape in James’ mind for some time during his stay in the Middle East. “It’s something you have to experience first hand – all the food there is shipped in, there’s no local produce of any note. Every single thing you put on a plate has travelled extensive miles and there are big supply chain logistics issues.
“Having experienced all that, my idea was to open something back in Australia that was really focused on local produce. I knew I would have to go out of Sydney to find a site, because I needed land and space for a kitchen garden so I could grow things you can’t find at the markets. It’s easy enough to buy a beautiful carrot but here we grow things you can’t easily get – we propagate all our own seeds from an automated hothouse fed by a natural spring on the property.”
James chose the name Biota for the concept, as it means balance of animal and plant life from a particular region. “It’s who we are, it’s our identity,” he affirms.
From initial concept to opening the restaurant took about four years, and at time of writing Biota has just celebrated its first birthday. James’ achievement now includes not one but two kitchen gardens. The first is dedicated to aromatic botanicals: “we grow radish pods, flowers, camomile, violets, and they’re all listed on the menu in their latin botanical names so people know what’s in the garden and what to expect on each dish.” The second garden is for produce like broadbeans – “we grew around 30 kilos this season” – jerusalem artichokes, spinach and so on. Both are fed by the natural spring which also propagates the seeds in the fully automated hot house that are then transplanted into the garden. “We buy everything from seed so there’s a full life cycle underway – it’s the best way to grow. The plant is adjusting to the soil, the pH levels and climate in which it’s being brought up. This means the end product is a lot stronger and more versatile than if you buy something which has been propagated in a warmer climate, then transplanted into a garden bed in the middle of Bowral!”
The seeds are sourced from Melbourne, Byron Bay and as far away as France for specialised produce like ice lettuce.
“The garden is a real talking point for the business, and it’s great for the chefs because it raises their awareness. When we’re doing an order for the kitchen we also need to order seeds for the garden – so our chefs not only have to look over all the mis en place and prep, they also need to ensure the seeds are ordered and planted at the right time. They’re the ones using the food so they need to understand how everything grows before they can put it on a plate.
“It’s a whole philosophy of sustainability – we spend two days a week gardening and the rest in the kitchen. The chefs are riding around on quad bikes with trailers behind them on two days of every week! It’s a nice balance – and it gives our team more respect for the food.”
For James this philosophy comes down to being true and honest to what one is doing. “Sustainability is one of those things – you can do it, but you need to look at where the produce has come from and how it got here, the food miles it’s travelled to reach you. We don’t have to spend too much time focusing on it because we’re already doing it!”
Biota boasts two distinct menus – a tapas selection which James describes as “very humble – it’s just really top produce cooked in a very simple way with not a lot of fuss. It’s all about the ingredients. You can come, sit down with a great cider or wine, order five or six tasty dishes and experience the best from the local region all in a very casual style.”
This menu is offered in the bar area six days a week, day and night – there are no set serving times or meal types, because James doesn’t believe in times or rules about when people should eat. “It’s very important people have the freedom to eat when and what they want, when they want to eat it. So there’s no division into breakfast, lunch or dinner. That reflects my own taste because I like eating different things at different times of the day. So we have 25-30 items on the tapas selection that we rotate every two weeks.”
The second menu is what James describes as “progressive dining” and again is also extremely focused on produce and technique.
“In the dining room – and this is where Biota has really established its identity – we seat 45-50 covers. We adapt our techniques to the local produce – there’s no bastardizing or taking away from the natural elements of each ingredient. So the technique needs to be progressive, forward-thinking. At the same time, there needs to be balance, with each dish harkening back to its origins. For example,  duck egg you might find in a nest, in a rustic farmyard environment would ordinarily be amid a lot of other vegetation. So we will make the duck egg a star ingredient and serve it on a nest of grains, like quinoa and wild rice, with some chickpea shoots from our hothouse – so they look as though they’re growing out of the nest, just like the chickpeas you might find growing wild in a chookpen. It’s a balance between refined elegance and natural rustic elements. We want to keep it real but we also need to have some wow factors and identifiable thought processes underpinning each dish.”
As you might expect, Biota’s success has attracted considerable interest from the local community – and one result of that is that the business now runs a ‘celebration day’ on the last Sunday of each month, with produce markets and its own raised suckling pig out in the garden.
“There are some great produce markets in Orange and Sydney, but I couldn’t find a really produce-focused market in the Southern Highlands, so we decided to start our own,” James explains. “We’ve had two so far and already we have 15 stallholders and are picking up around another five every month. We’ll probably cut off at around 25 which is quite large. It’s all really good produce – we have local free range eggs from a lady who knows the names of all her hens, we have chestnuts, olives and olive oil – all locally produced. It’s such a dynamic area that I can’t quite believe no one’s tapped into this potential before. It’s all laid out on the grounds – people can come in for lunch on Sunday, then wander into the grounds and buy the food served on the menu.”
Biota is also running cooking classes twice a week – “we’ve done a lot of cooking classes for kids during the school holidays run by my head chef Grant Croft. I also do classes on bread, ice cream, haloumi making, and a new one where we make our own biltong. It’s a little like beef jerky but a bit more spicy – a South African food. You marinate it, spice it up and dry it out – it’s really good in cool climates because we can dry it without refrigeration. So we’re going to air dry 70 kilos of wagyu beef in the cellar – the climate in Bowral is perfect for that. We’ll smoke it in apple wood first, then cure it with cider and air dry for six or seven weeks. So people can experience all that in the classes, then come back and have a glass of wine with us on the lounge, or sit back and eat their haloumi with some nice sourdough.
The laid-back atmosphere and approach is typical of James, who repeatedly stresses the importance of freedom. “I don’t like too much formality – people need to feel free. It’s very important to chefs at Biota too that they feel that, otherwise they won’t be able to create as well as otherwise. A sense of freedom, sense of curiosity is the biggest element in the cooking we do. There always has to be a balance and a meaning to our work, but no rules and boundaries, because they only hold you back.”

CLICK TO DOWNLOAD Foodservice Rep featuring Biota Dining Head Chef James Viles.