Meet the Member - Duart Homestead
We caught up with Nathan Smith from Duart Homestead for a good chat on the phone, covered lots of fun topics and unearthed a family connection to Gippsland that goes back three generations !
How long have you owned Duart Homestead and the associated award winning catering business ?
It'll be 15 years in November this year - we took over on the 1st of November in 2004. My wife Natasha and I are both chefs and we actually got married at Duart in 1998. We said to the owner at the time, who was also a chef, whenever you're ready to sell, give us a call !
Six years later he did.
We were at a stage in our lives together that the call and the opportunity came exactly at the right time - we always knew we wanted to have function venue of our own, as we saw it as the only way we would progress and be prosperous in the hospitality industry and have a family at the same time.
How big is your family ?
Well, at the time we bought Duart - we had three daughters. We've now got six daughters - and yes my life is completely ruled by women !
Our three oldest girls are in 2nd Year uni, Year 12 and Year 11 - and then there's the three younger ones who are all at primary school. They range in age from 19 to 8 - and it is one big happy family - a very loud, crazy family - who all help out in what is very much a family business, which is great.
The Homestead is a beautiful building that has quite a history in Gippsland - tell us about how the business runs ?
We mainly only open the Homestead for events, and we also do a lot of catering offsite. We've found that this allows us to really have family downtime, so that when we're not either running an event at the Homestead or catering for an event elsewhere, our down time is truly our own - and it's our family time. We're not there seven days a week.
The homestead was built in 1883 by Allan McLean who was one of the founding fathers of Federation and was once the Premier of Victoria. The Homestead was his country house - named after Duart Castle in Scotland. It actually continued to be owned by his family until the late 1970's when it was converted in the reception venue that it still is today - and that has been ours for the last 15 years !
Tell us about the catering side of the business ?
The catering side of our business spreads across a large footprint of Gippsland - over the years we've done lots of events in lots of different locations - spreading from Marlo in the east to Warragul in the west !
We are connected to a number of iconic events in the region. We have the catering rights for the Sale Cup and we cater for over 1000 people in 15 different locations, all in the same service period, so it's a big logistics exercise to have the right chef and wait staff in place for each location. But over the years, we've built up an amazing team of really dedicated, fun and professional staff, so events of this scale we really do well, and have a lot of fun doing it!
The most memorable event to date at Duart Homestead
The most beautiful wedding that we have ever done at the Homestead was a Down Syndrome couple, with every single person (including us!) in the venue in tears - happy emotional tears of course - and there was just so much love in the room.
Everyone was filled with such joy that these two beautiful people had found each other, it was truly one of the most romantically gorgeous events I have had the privilege to be a part of.
Favourite thing to cook as a caterer ?
I love creating what a customer wants - when they are happy, I am happy.
We really enjoy working with themes and being experimental.
We've had couples come to us with ideas for wedding catering such as a Mexican street food feast, and we absolutely love working with them to create a menu and an event that excites them and wows their guests. And bringing it all together for them on the day gives us immense joy.
And at home - what's the go to ?
Nothing beats a good BBQ !
I am the King of the BBQ - I love firing it up - BBQ'íng is one of the many reasons I love summer.
We generally keep things pretty simple at home - just some simple, fresh salads and grilled meats. The BBQ is definitely a winner for that casual, relaxed environment. I do all the cooking for our family - which I really love.
Collaboration is a big thing for your business ?
I absolutely dig that philosophy of just making sure that the customers get what they want.
On all our function menus, we have "Your Choice" written at the bottom of the menu - and what that means for our customer is that if there is something they've eaten at another event or venue, and they want to incorporate a version of that into their own event that we are either holding at the Homestead or catering for them, we welcome that with open arms and work with them to bring it all to life, with their own stamp on it.
What do you love about life in Gippsland ?
The availability of everything Gippsland is truly amazing, in quite a temperate climate.
We are blessed to be just a few hours away from the city, but we've then got the beaches, the snow and the Lakes all accessible within a few hours - it really is such a good lifestyle mix, and we are really fortunate to have such a diverse range of quality produce to pick from across the region.
If I've got a day off, I can get on my mountainbike, my jetski or my kayak and just disappear for a few hours, so it lends itself really well to being able to achieve that elusive work/life balance. You can definitely have a bit of a outdoors fun without having to go too far from your own backyard. The biggest traffic jam is having to wait for cows to cross the road at milking time !
Our kids always say every winter - hey Dad when are we going to the snow - it's so cool to be able to just bundle everyone into the car, drive a few hours to get to the snow, make a snowman, get cold and be then able to just get in the car and come home again. There really is everything at your fingertips.
Does your connection with Gippsland go back a long way ?
I started my apprenticeship at the Riversleigh in Bairnsdale, and I loved those early years working in East Gippsland - we did a lot of really cool and fun events.
But my family connection goes a little further back than that even - my great grandfather, Bill AhChow was the first person to grow maize in Gippsland, and his High Country hut Moscow Villa is still standing today at Bentley Plain near Ensay off the Great Alpine Road.
What is your advice to small food start-ups in the region ?
Oh absolutely give it a go and really get out there and make people aware of your produce and products.
I get super excited when I hear about people who are growing native produce and/or they're having a go with something different.
I think that there is a huge opportunity with a growing movement of people wanting to buy local produce and support local growers, and I think that ( like with any new small business ) whilst there is always the challenge of making it into an financially rewarding business model, getting bigger isn't always the answer.
One thing we've always stuck to is keeping our catering business small enough so that we maintain complete control over the quality of what we deliver - and when you deliver a quality product, you will always have customers who are willing to pay for that quality.
Why did you join Food & Fibre Gippsland
I just love the collaboration that I've been seeing and reading about - and the ethos of everyone working together to move forward in the same direction just really appealed to us.
We're excited about the business connections that we can make, and being able to hear about opportunities to connect with new producers, new products, and keep in touch with innovative things happening in the region.
The next five years for Duart ?
We're converting our stables at Duart Homestead to some boutique accommodation, and we're hoping to have that finished by mid 2020 - the builders are in the middle of that right now, so it's our next big project, and we are really excited about it - can't wait for it to up and running.
And no doubt there'll be more big and small events that we will continue to be involved in, and Duart will continue to be a sought after destination for weddings all year round !
Check out Duart Homestead here