After years spent cooking all over the world, chef Steve Cumper expresses exactly what he wants to say about food in a little cafe in rural Tasmania.

Story By Cormac Hanrahan

Sometimes referred to as the ‘Byron Bay of Tasmania’ for its artsy vibe, the town of Cygnet, south of Hobart, is an agricultural community of about 1000 people nestled beside the protected waters of the Huon River. Along its main street of well-kept historic buildings, a chalkboard outside The Red Velvet Lounge cafe signals that broad beans and asparagus are in season.
While the island state of Tasmania has long been famous for the purity of its environment, its food is increasingly becoming the language of choice for regions to express their particular area’s riches and talents. Chef and owner of The Red Velvet Lounge Steve Cumper has made it his business to tell the story of Cygnet and its surrounds’ seasonal diversity through his menu. “We’ve got sheep, goat and, of course, cows’ milk cheese,” he says. “We’ve got saffron, olives, wine, avocadoes, the most amazing fish you can imagine and great meat, quails, rabbits, lamb and we’ve even got wasabi.”
While locals and visitors make a beeline for The Red Velvet Lounge because of its reputation, Steve ended up here after his own journey of discovery. Born in London to Australian parents, Steve points to his parents’ appreciation for food and culture as the source of his own gastronomic leanings. Returning to Australia at the end of the 1960s, the family moved to the working-class suburb of Coburg in Melbourne’s north. There Steve found his passion for food through work experience with Stephanie Alexander. Steve took up an apprenticeship as a teenager and then followed his parents’ example and bought a one-way ticket to London. “Back then Australian chefs were regarded with a bit of scepticism, like we were gunna pull up stumps any moment and go surfing,” Steve says. “But I just worked.”
Steve spent the next 15 years travelling with his trade. There was a five-month stint in France; a year at Robe in coastal South Australia; time in Adelaide, where he met his wife, Kate; the Barossa Valley; then back to Melbourne and finally Tasmania.

This story excerpt is from Issue #85

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2012