Gianni Moretto, is bringing the Basque obsession with local, seasonal ingredients to the Hunter Valley. Sebastian Restaurant is inspired by the gastronomic destination of San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque country, famous for its endless pintxos bars and world leading Michelin star restaurants. From 2017 to 2018 Gianni was Head Chef of Rekondo, overlooking the town’s Concha Bay, where the focus was on the highest-quality ingredients and their cellar featuring some of the world’s best wines.

Gianni comes to Spicers from Peruvian-theme Uma Restaurant in Perth’s Pan Pacific Hotel. He was offered that role in 2018 by chef Alejandro Saravia, who introduced Peruvian cuisine to Australia with his South American fine-dining restaurant, Morena, in Sydney’s foodie mecca, Surry Hills.

Moretto’s five-course set dinner menu, which changes daily on a four-day cycle, features a different premium meat presented three ways as the main course each night. The opening winter ‘game and forest’ menu features trout, squab, roe deer and wild boar, prepared with a wealth of Basque-style and origin ingredients. Guests who stay longer than four evenings are treated to their own bespoke menu.

Attuned to landscape

Although Basque cuisine is acknowledged among the world’s culinary treasures, it’s simple and unpretentious cooking, healthy and hearty, with minimal use of spices and herbs.

It celebrates the finest locally sourced, seasonal produce from the native landscape of mountains, valleys and sea. In the same way, Sebastian is a showcase of the Hunter region, sourcing many wild and foraged ingredients from the local area.

“For Basque cuisine, proximity means quality and for us it is a fundamental part of our gastronomic thinking,” explains Gianni.

“Obtaining the product from the closest area will help us with the quality of the ingredient itself, but it will also showcase the producers’ efforts to the world,” he says. Within one year, Moretto aims to be able to supply more than half of their ingredients exclusively from the Hunter region.

Basque a la carte

At Sebastian Restaurant in Spicer’s Tower Lodge, an amuse to begin could be a delicate balance of grilled oysters, Idiazabal cheese and finger limes. First courses include feta and Basque Pipparrak chilli pepper bread, wild garlic and Txistorra butter, and second course on the right night might be grilled koji-aged turbot, foraged wild lettuce, beurre blanc sauce and Yarra Valley trout roe.

“I want to highlight the work of hunters and foragers from the area near Adina Estate where we get our wild deer, says Moretto. “They feed on olives, which makes their flavour incredible, it’s probably a luxury only Sebastian’s customers will experience.”

Roe deer is presented three ways, with different textures and layers of flavour from the same animal, contrasted with native flavours developed in the Sebastian kitchen – as a deer loin with truffle and deer jus; deer sausage with pollen mustard and fermented espelette chilli sauce; and deer tartar, beetroot and pungent flowers.

Know who feeds you

Gianni began his career in Santiago, Chile. At around nine years of age, he first remembers being invited by the Maître d into the kitchen of his mother’s favourite restaurant where he discovered a parallel universe behind the dining room door. From age 14 he worked in his mother’s restaurant and came to understand the utmost importance of serving others and giving respect.

“By visiting the fish and seafood market every morning, I learned the true importance of knowing who provides you,” says Gianni. “With a good ceviche in hand and lot of jokes, you could choose what kind of products you would take to the kitchen.”

Gianni loves the finesse and texture of seafood. “The range of flavours in seafood is incredible, from something delicate and buttery like grilled turbot, to the iodized flavour of fresh sea urchins or fried sea nettles.”

The south of Chile is somewhere everyone should visit at least once in their life, according to Gianni. It’s a fertile region where amazing products such as the Murta (Chilean guava) or the digueñe mushroom are grown.

A vineyard grilling

Spicer’s commitment to onsite market gardening at their country and urban properties continues at Tower Lodge.

“Growing different species of the nightshade family, especially those from the Basque Country, like the piquillo pepper or Piparras de Ibarra, makes me feel almost like in a farmhouse in the mountains of Alava,” Gianni says.

The vineyards provide Sebastian with vine shoots for grilling and leaves for slow cooking dishes like squab breast and fermented wild Mountain Roger glace.

Moretto says, “I love cooking on the grill and then introducing the food into the almost extinguished embers to cook ‘al rescoldo’ overnight.”

Connect with nature

At the Pan Pacific Hotel in Perth, Gianni was Head Chef of the vegan pop-up Ten Acre Block. He must have caught Spicers’ eye for his sustainability and collaborations with local farmers to serve the best freshest seasonal produce.

Moretto believes in using the whole product to reduce the amount of waste, which he feels is one of the biggest challenges in the food industry.

“Connecting with nature is what I enjoy most on my days off,” says Gianni, “even if it’s just a simple walk. I seek to understand the cycles of life and how they contribute to my kitchen. It’s a really magical connection.”

Finding inspiration

“I think the chef I most admire is Diego Prado,” explains Moretto. “He’s a compatriot and friend who has made a worldwide name for himself as Head of RandD at Alchemist restaurant in Copenhagen. His dishes are the perfect balance between science, botany and gastronomy.”

Gianni respects what he describes as ‘techno-emotional cuisine’, a culinary movement led by Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. It’s promoted by chefs of different ages and traditions, who want to create emotion in the diner.

“Andoni Luis Aduriz is considered as one of the most influential chefs of our time,” says Gianni. “Throughout his career he crossed established borders and become a rebel in every single aspect of the kitchen.”

Moretto’s library is pretty full, and he has a special place for his ‘bible’, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee.

“For over a month, I remember being stuck on a small island in Indonesia,” said Moretto. “I learned cooking techniques from the locals I could never see in high-end restaurants. Being humble leads you to discover things that are generally not open to other people.”

“As I always say,” says Gianni, “when doubts assail you, roll up your sleeves and cook!”

Bringing joy to work

From day one, Gianni has found the team’s attitude to been exemplary. “The energy that we are breathing and our focus on the client’s experience has made working at the Tower Lodge a real joy,” he explains.

One of Moretto’s greatest passions is nurturing young professionals. His efforts were recognised in 2019 with a nomination for Mentor of the Year by the Western Australia Hospitality Training Group.

Moretto says, “We need to rescue more talents and integrate them into a kitchen team who supports self-learning and creativity.”

From 2019 to 2021, Gianni joined with his WA colleague to offer dinners as prizes in the Starlight Children’s Foundation annual fundraising auction. A 2021 partnership with New York chef Charlie Vargas at the Plantagenet winery was valued at over $18,000.

Achieving excellence – previous awards:

  • Chef of the Year, AHA WA 2021
  • Restaurant of the Year (Ten Acre Block 2021), Restaurant and Catering association
  • Best Speciality restaurant (Ten Acre Block 2021) Restaurant and Catering association