A talented chef who grew up in the Hunter Valley, Fawkner, showcases delicious regional produce at his award-winning fine dining restaurant EXP. in Pokolbin.
He also shares his love for the simple things in life – from home baked breads, to pastries and tasty cooked breakfasts at his adjoining cafe Fawk Foods Kitchen and Bakery.
Curious to learn more about the man behind the EXPerience, I chatted with Frank about his influences and inspiration.
Hi Frank, what do you like about living and working in the Hunter Valley?
My wife and I grew up here so we are close to family and friends. I went to school in Singleton, and started my career as a chef at Crowne Plaza, Hunter Valley. Working overseas made me appreciate what a great place the Hunter is and, when we came back, I realised it’s also an awesome place to have a restaurant. It’s only a two-hour trip from Sydney, so people come up for the weekend looking for good food and wine.
What effect has Covid had on your restaurant trade?
Most of our guests come from Sydney and interstate. When Sydney went into lockdown in 2021, we still had some local trade and we managed to keep busy by offering some great local incentives, like 50% off our tasting menu. We had to close with the NSW-wide lockdown, but if travel restrictions are still in place when we can reopen, then we will be offering more incentives for the local community.
What do you love most about being a chef and how is that reflected at EXP.?
Food can create happy memories. Many special occasions are created and centred around meals enjoyed with family and friends. I love being able to offer people an experience that they will always remember.
EXP. is the smallest restaurant in the area and the only one with a chef’s bar. It’s a unique and intimate dining experience and our native and seasonal offerings make it really memorable. We get a lot of comments from our guests that everything they try is different from other restaurants.
Why did you call the restaurant EXP.?
Because it’s all about the experience, that’s the predominant thing. It’s not just about the food. It’s about the wine, the service, the cutlery we use. We get lots of stuff handmade by local artisans. We have local crockery, handmade steak knives from a man just down the road, local produce grown in the area, so there’s a story behind everything and an ethos.
We also have an open kitchen / chef’s bar, so people can watch us cook and serve the food, which enhances the experience. It’s much more than just going out for dinner, guests can really get involved in what’s happening in the evening which makes it fun and interactive.
We are fortunate to have so much great produce here in the Hunter, how is this reflected in your menu?
The majority of the menu is created from local produce. For example, local honey, eggs, chicken, and lots of fruit and vegetables. We also have wagyu beef from Singleton. We want to showcase things that represent our area, and I guess that inspires the menu to evolve with the seasons. I normally pick ingredients due to the season, which gives me the building blocks to create dishes.
This season the closest apples I could find were from Bilpin about three hours away. I wanted to do a take on an apple pie – an apple and celeriac pie, like a deep fried Macca’s apple pie. Who doesn’t love those? I wanted to do something different with it, by using vegetables in sweets to make something that people are familiar with, but get excited by.
I noticed that you only offer Australian wines. Can you tell me about that?
Yes, that’s right, only Australian wines, alcohol and spirits. Again, we are showcasing the Hunter Valley and Australia, so when you come to the restaurant you really get an experience of the region.
So how did you come to be a chef?
In school I enjoyed cooking and was good at it. I had a great mentor/teacher, she was amazing with children and I think she inspired a lot of kids. I did some work placements, then got a casual job at a little cafe out of Broke. They gave me a lot of freedom and allowed me to cook a lot of things – rather than just spending time doing the dishes. Thanks to that freedom and responsibility, I really enjoyed cooking and decided to take it up as a career.
How would you describe your cooking style?
Along with a lot of Australian chefs these days, I focus on seasonality and original produce. I also like to use a lot of native ingredients where possible. My cooking style is contemporary because Australia is a melting pot of different cuisine so there’s a lot of different influences. I draw on all those and relate them to native ingredients that are in season.
You also have a cafe, Fawk Foods Kitchen and Bakery. Can you tell me about that?
Fine dining is my passion, but I love baking and I love eating the simple things – good baked bread, awesome breakfast, scrambled eggs and bacon done well. So, I decided to open a cafe/ bakery. We make our own bread and pastries completely from scratch, including crumpets. They are a big thing of mine and one of my favourites.
People don’t eat out somewhere like EXP. every night. They want something casual for breakfast or brunch or afternoon tea. Now we can cover the full spectrum for people coming to the Hunter. A year ago, we moved EXP. to the same spot as the cafe, so it’s all just in one location, which works amazingly well. I love what I do, but now that we have two little kids, it’s much easier to manage this way and I have found the best work / life balance I ever had.
Thanks so much for chatting with me today Frank. I look forward to the day EXP. can open its doors after the lockdown and hope that apple pie will still be on the menu, it sounds divine!