Inspired by Japanese, European and Mediterranean cuisines, chef Michael Ryan delights in surprising guests at his eclectic restaurant in Beechworth, Vic.

Story By Emma Mulholland

“Nothing but the deafening sound of crickets and monster trucks,” laughs the owner of Provenance restaurant in Beechworth, Vic, as he describes the audience’s response as he stepped on stage at last year’s Royal Melbourne Show. As part of a workshop program studded with MasterChef competitors and a Michelin-starred chef, Michael Ryan had been invited to teach the swelling crowd how to whip up some of his restaurant’s exotic fare; a goats’ cheese cheesecake with blood orange salad. “Who here has heard of Provenance?” boomed the MC. No one, apparently. A fact made clear by the roar of distant trucks and insects that filled the hall.
Clearly, industry acclaim – which Provenance has in spades – has not made Michael Ryan a household name. Not in Melbourne, anyway. But since opening three years ago, his eclectic little restaurant has taken its place on the state’s unofficial ‘foodie trail’ alongside established operations such as the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld. Cookbook writer Stephanie Alexander and television presenter Maeve O’Meara both dine there. Had they been in the crowd, not to mention The Age critics who awarded Provenance two Chef’s Hats and 2011 Country Wine List of the Year, the trucks would have had something to compete with.
“It was pretty funny,” Michael says, sitting in the restaurant’s small dining room where great arched windows let natural light flood over dark furnishings. Built in 1856, it is one of many heritage buildings scattered among antique stores and bed-and-breakfasts on the tree-lined streets of the pretty tourist town in Victoria’s north-east. An old vault, which houses the much-lauded wine cellar, nods to the building’s original incarnation as a bank. Since then, it has been a lodging house for nuns, a jewellery shop and, when the town fell on hard times, a squat, housing just one man and his mattress.
Tourism revived the town and in the 1990s the old squat became a fine-dining restaurant named The Bank. “It was the restaurant in the north-east, all silver service and doilies,” Michael says. But such flourishes were among the first things to go when he and his partner Jeanette Henderson took over in 2009. Instead they’ve gone for a simple yet elegant interior, a style reflective of the softly spoken chef.
Most diners come for the seasonally inspired degustation menus – vegetarian or otherwise – served with matching wines. With dishes such as ‘Roasted broccoli, white bean puree, confit garlic, lemon, anchovy custard, bacon’ it’s hard to pin down which part of the globe each dish is influenced by – its provenance, if you will – but one thing that characterises each is Michael’s love of fresh vegies. “That’s what interests me because there are so many textures with vegetables. Sometimes it’s nice to have not so much a chunk of meat but a meat element, like a sauce or a garnish,” Michael says. Where possible, he sources ingredients locally. Others come from trips to Japan where he consults to a restaurant run by a couple from Falls Creek, Vic.

This story excerpt is from Issue #82

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2012