Ask those in the know who is the rising star among young Hunter Valley chefs and you'll most often get the response: "Frank Fawkner".
After four years as right-hand man to regional star Troy Rhoades-Brown at Muse and Muse Kitchen, Fawkner has struck out on his own with his new EXP. eatery opening its doors at the Oakvale cellar door.
I popped in a couple of weeks ago when the restaurant was a building site but Fawkner was confident it would open before Easter - and so it has proved.
For me, the name smacks of pretence. EXP. is so-named because it is all about the 'exp'erience'. But put that aside, because there is no doubt Fawkner can cook.
He was head chef when the team led by executive chef Troy Rhoades-Brown achieved two-hat status in the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.
"The philosophy behind my restaurant is on the experience," Fawkner says. "EXP. is not just about the food and wine. It's about every little thing - the service, music, art, painting, crockery, aromas, furniture and fit-out. It's about every little thing that plays its part in creating something memorable for customers.
"My food is very contemporary. The name EXP. relates to the 'experience' but it also is about being 'experimental' having 'expertise' and 'exposure' to tastes and textures."
Fawkner began his cooking career at the age of 15 at Mount Broke Wines. He was then part of the opening team at Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley where he completed his apprenticeship before moving to London, where he worked his way up to the position of sous chef at Tom's Kitchen.When he returned home to the Hunter in 2011 Fawkner joined owners Troy and Megan Rhoades-Brown (chef and restaurant manager) at Muse.
Fawkner says diners should not expect a traditional dining experience.
I've divided the menu into Food from the Earth, Sea, Land and Sky, Cheese and Sweets," he says. "There are no entrees, no mains. I want to give back the freedom of choice to the customer."
While Fawkner says he and Rhoades-Brown both favour a similar contemporary style of cooking, EXP. will adopt a more pared-back approach, with less components on the plate.
"I have established gardens onsite, there are stonewall garden beds filled with herbs and there are 4 x 3-metre garden beds just a rolling pin's throw from the restaurant. I can't wait to just get in the kitchen and start cooking," he says.
"One of the dishes that most excites me is the black garlic risotto with cauliflower, cheddar and nasturtium. It is black and white with nice fresh green leaves.
"From the land and sky section, the ham on toast, with duck, focaccia, fig, macadamia and mizuna also tells a story about what I'm about."
EXP. Restaurant is at 1596 Broke Road Pokolbin, NSW. (02) 4998 7264.