WORDS BY ALICIA LUDI-SCHÜTZ
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PETE THORNTON
Owen Andrews is making pastries, his deft hands form delicate parcels of perfection, destined to adorn the tables of yet another fine dining event.
Whilst it’s not unusual to see a chef working in a modern commercial kitchen, sheer determination and a relentless drive to succeed are among the hidden qualities that make this picture special.
Seppeltsfield Winery’s historic Cellar Six, framed by date palms planted during the Great Depression, is Owen’s headquarters.
The outside of the building hasn’t changed in over a century but age old Barossa food traditions have permeated these stone walls, waiting until now to be re-discovered.
“There’s 170 years’ worth of food stories here,” Owen says with an infectious enthusiasm.
He speaks of cheese preserved in barrels of Para Tawny, mushrooms growing in cellars ready for sale and did you know Seppeltsfield was the first to export smoked bacon to the UK?
That original smokehouse is now back in operation using century old port and sherry barrel shavings sourced from the cooperage across the road, the same way Benno Seppelt’s staff would have done during Seppeltsfield’s era of self-sufficiency.
“When we came here we noticed all these hooks in the cellar and I asked Warren Randall if we could cure legs of prosciutto and hang them in the cellar. Putting them in there, it just felt like we were putting back in place what belongs.”
Today, Owen has not only resurrected the smokehouse, he’s using it to flavour mushrooms in another nod to history under his artisan label of preserves and condiments; old sherries are being set into jellies and cheese is once again floating in tawny, absorbing those full, rich flavours of yesteryear, ready to be enjoyed by a new generation.
He’s even found a way to preserve the inedible fruit of the date palms that form Seppeltsfield’s famed “Avenue of Hope and Dreams”, an initiative instigated by the Seppelt family to help lift community spirit during the difficult post war era.
“That’s what I love about this estate, we can take what they have put in place and then we can add something to it,” says Owen whose award-winning cooking has become synonymous with Barossa’s best dining experiences, capturing the imagination of celebrity chefs, Hollywood stars and royalty.
Owen admits he is living the dream but becomes emotional when he tells of the difficult road that led him to this picture perfect location.
“We all have challenges in life. But I’ve always said, it’s not what happens it’s how you recover.” – Owen Andrews
He describes growing up in a poor family, the only son of Errol and Marg Andrews who moved to Greenock in search for the best possible life for their four young children.
The family lived in nearly every Barossa town, renovating old houses then upgrading to a slightly better one and doing the same again.
“It was what they had to do to keep making things better. I guess that shaped me a little bit. You keep working with that same mind-set to keep improving and evolving.”
Born with dyslexia, Owen struggled at school and remembers hearing people say “What will become of Errol’s boy?”
But a day of discovery would change his life.
“My sister was working in a kitchen at The Lanzerac at Tanunda and dad was asked to help do some dishes. He didn’t want to leave me on the weekends, he wanted to spend them with me so he said he would only go if I could come too.
“I walked into a kitchen when I was 13 and instantly fell in love with the romance of a busy kitchen.
I remember they were cooking a crab bisque, the windows were all fogged and as I opened the door, the smell of food flavours that I never experienced before hit me. It was so inviting. All my senses went ting, ting, ting! From that moment I was addicted.
“I worked really hard, I wanted a job. Eventually my dad’s phone stopped ringing as often and I got the job. Every day after school I would catch the Tanunda school bus from Nuri. I would do all the afternoon dishes from the kitchen, work into the evening and scoot home to get ready for school the next day.”
Owen had finally found an environment where hard work and creativity would compensate for his struggles with dyslexia.
“Just because things were a struggle in the classroom, didn’t mean I didn’t have a lot to offer in life. I just came at it in a different way.”
The unyielding determination instilled by his parents kicked in and Owen was allowed to leave school to work at the restaurant at age 14 with the proviso he’d be offered an apprenticeship at 16.
He hadn’t attended his first Regency Park TAFE lecture when his boss suggested he enter a statewide competition for apprentice chefs.
“I was competing against 33 apprentices from the Hyatt, the Hilton, all big establishments and I won! I hadn’t even attended trade school yet, I couldn’t believe it.”
Owen found TAFE challenging, yet the teenager grit his teeth for the battle.
“I would tape every lecture and refused to watch any television or listen to anything but the recording of the lectures.
“I passed simply from memory. I refused to let anything get in my way. I blocked out the entire world.”
On completing his apprenticeship, Owen was quickly snapped up by leading city restaurants.
But he missed the Barossa and decided to open his own café at Nuriootpa called Harvesters with $300 in his pocket, a caravan cook top and whatever else he could “beg, borrow or steal”.
People soon noticed this talented, homegrown chef and invitations to cook at wineries and functions soon followed, with each successful event leading to another. Owen Andrews Catering had taken off.
When he met his future wife, Rebecca, a nursing student with a love of cooking, Owen’s life jumped to new heights.
They became the perfect team.
Harvesters reached a whole new level of success as their romance blossomed and the ability to provide fine dining experiences for hundreds of guests became second nature.
Even when Owen was diagnosed with late onset Type I diabetes at age 27, his strength of character shone.
“It’s a challenge. Basically, I’m allergic to food”, he smiles.
“I manage it reasonably well, as much as anyone can manage something like that. It’s just life, make the best of it.”
The couple would eventually close Harvesters and focus on catering once they started their family.
“Our beautiful daughter Celeste, who is now 12, seemed to be a typical baby,” Owen explains.
“As she started to develop, Rebecca started saying there’s something wrong. I went no, she’ll catch up… I was in denial.
“They did a review when she was about four and said she was like an 18 month old. I remember feeling down on that comment… at that stage we were paying more than a house mortgage on therapies, trying to make it all better. But that was making more of a problem because the only thing that actually makes it better is just accepting it.
“She was once zero, she’s now four and if she’s two and a bit years behind, I can live with that.
Does that mean when she is 20 she might be 10? She’s still progressing. We can see that.”
Celeste has blossomed since going to Tanunda Primary School’s Disability unit and has learned to communicate through images on an iPad-like device.
“She understands what every picture means. She uses it to tell me to ‘buzz off’ and we both have
a laugh,” says Owen.
“People don’t know about the other side to our life. They don’t realise when Rebecca and I go home, we keep working around the clock to provide the most loving and safe environment we can to create a typical, happy home for both our children.
“Celeste is a beautiful girl and her brother, Landen, just loves her to bits.
“We all have challenges in life. But I’ve always said, it’s not what happens it’s how you recover.”