Around 220 kilometres north of Melbourne lies the Barmah National Park, part of the largest river red gum forest in the world. Limbs of this blood coloured wood are foraged from the surrounding 100 acres of farmland to fuel the unique red gum grill in Bendigo’s only steakhouse. “It just gives the meat that extra flavour,” says The Woodhouse’s owner and head chef, Paul Pitcher. “I can’t even replicate it at home.”
Paul shows me the huge char grill with an enormous amount of pride. The earthy colour of his sustainably sourced red gum stands out instantly in the sterile and unlikely location of a commercial kitchen. As it burns and cooks the meat, a tray of tomatoes is smoked above. There’s a sense that nothing is wasted and everything is considered.
The Woodhouse buy all the main cuts from Everything Wagyu, a family farm in Cohuna who only kill one animal a fortnight. “We try and take as much as possible because it is hard for a farmer to sell all of a cow,” he explains. Paul’s unique position as both owner and chef allows him to preference local produce and quality food. Old breed pork comes from McIver Farm Foods, just an hour away in Tooberac, and B&B Basil’s microherbs are picked fresh in East Bendigo.
Telling the story of the region and its producers is an intrinsic part of the venue’s ethos. Three years ago, when Paul and his wife were renovating the space and installing their grill, the owner of Inglewood Beef walked through the door. “To be honest we helped build each other’s businesses after that, we market him as much as we can and he gives us great dry-aged beef.”
The educational approach has been adopted by a few retailers in Bendigo as visitors want a taste of the region and locals want to reconnect. The hugely popular fine dining spot, Masons of Bendigo, also has a suppliers list at the bottom corner of their menu and local cocktail bar, The Dispensary Enoteca, champions produce such as La Luna’s Holy Goat’s cheese to craft some spectacular dishes to complement their craft drinks. “There’s a few of us now,” says Paul about the positively burgeoning food scene in Bendigo. “We need to be here and we need to be consistent.”
Having received a score of 14.5 (the highest of any steakhouse) in this year’s Age Good Food Guide, The Woodhouse’s considered approach is clearly getting recognised. The barn-like interior is warmed by a big natural fire in winter and a covered outdoor area has been added for summer. Events such as roast collections and wagyu and wine matches are also drawing crowds and engaging locals.
Harnessing the general public’s interest in where food comes from and what regional Victoria has to offer, The Woodhouse is continuing to produce a consistent offering of quality woodfire pizzas, local wine (Heathcote, Harcourt and Nagambie all within driving range), craft beer, organic lamb, pasture-fed porterhouse and wood-smoked wagyu.
What stands out above all else is Paul’s passion for his red gum grill and the locally butchered, quality meat that he cooks on it. “I still get up every day and I always want to come to work,” he says with animation. “My love for beef has sent me in this direction.”