The Matchmaker Of Deliciousness

"A beer match will outdo any wine match at any given time."

It's the sort of phrase you can imagine falling from the lips of many brewers, beer lovers and beer-centric venue owners. Yet the person who uttered them is none of those.

Actually, that's not true at all. He is a beer lover. But he's best known as a chef. And not just any chef either. Prior to returning to Victoria last year, Rob Kaboord was chef de cuisine at Quay in Sydney, a restaurant that's been at the pinnacle of Australian dining for the best part of two decades and has picked up more major awards than you've had three Chef Hat dinners.

While the restaurant world, at least in part, has been steadily embracing beer over the past decade – aided in recent years by the rise of subtle, complex sour styles – it's still more pleasant surprise than expectation met when you come across a well considered beer list, let alone find a chef or sommelier willing to go into battle for what's traditionally been viewed as wine's poor relation.

Yet Rob is a card-carrying proselytiser. Some of you will have come across him via the Vrolijke Boot events he's co-hosted with Boatrocker during Good Beer Week, or his days at Merricote – the delightful restaurant he ran in Westgarth with wife Bronwyn, or – if you've been around long enough – Hotel Max in South Yarra (of which more later). 

"There are dishes that are impossible to match to wine and that goes for all levels of cooking," he says when we meet for a coffee, one that turns into a three-hour chat that darts between cities, across the equator and back, from past to present to future, and always comes served with a smile.

He elaborates on the point by describing a past visit to Attica. At one stage in the degustation, he was served a potato dish and spotted the sommelier bringing over glasses for pinot noir.

"My first thought was, 'Pinot – this is going to be shit. What a crap match.'," Rob says. "Then he came out carrying this massive bottle of Chimay [Grande Réserve]. I told him, 'I want to get up and hug you because only you and I matter right now. We’re going to make love to this glass.'."

 

Lekker! – the residency within Melbourne's Hotel Windsor where Rob brings his neo-bistro stylings to bear.

 

As I said, Rob loves a good beer. And he appreciates a good match too, as anyone who's attended his dinners will well know. Right now – at least until the next Vrolijke Boot in May – your best chance of putting his talents to the test is at Lekker!, the pop-up venue whose name means "tasty" or "delicious" in Dutch he launched earlier this summer inside the Hotel Windsor in Melbourne.

Yet his road to this point covers many years and even more kilometres. Upon leaving school in the Netherlands, he studied hotel management at a leading school an hour outside Amsterdam; in his final year, he went to gain experience in London, by which stage he'd realised a life managing spreadsheets in an office wasn't for him. He pushed for a move into a kitchen, landed a position at the Waldorf and within a few months ended up moving into the bistro.

"The action. The movement. The cooking. It was such a sensory overload," he says. The spark had been lit.

"I went in going, 'How the fuck did that happen? I need to know how this works.' I spent three months learning bistro cooking. Did hundreds of covers every night. It was an amazing place to learn your craft." 

That was soon followed by a move to a Michelin starred fine dining restaurant.

"Somehow the adrenaline was ramped up again," Rob recalls. "I said, 'Shoot me up with whatever this is!'." (Interestingly, given the terminology, Rob's Dutch heritage and the reputation of chefs worldwide, he tells me he's never so much as smoked a cigarette, let alone shot up with anything.)

"Someone said to me, 'If this is your cup of tea go and work with Andrew McLeish at the Landmark Hotel. I rang my mum and dad and said, 'I'm not coming home.'."

 

Rob Kaboord addressing guests with Boatrocker co-founder Matt Houghton at Vrolijke Boot during Good Beer Week 2019.

 

All well and good, but so far no craft beer and no Australia. Yet it was at this time he met Bron, who grew up in Rutherglen. So, once a visa was secured, he swapped the Michelin stars of London for the Poachers Paradise in country Victoria, a boss called Ivor who was less than enamoured with his requests to add specials to the menu, and attempts to secure work with the likes of Shannon Bennett, who had not long opened the original Vue de monde.

In the end, he found success in Sydney, landing a role at Quay shortly before Peter Gilmore was brought in and set about launching his revolution.

"He started talking about his ideas on food and it was like nothing I'd heard about," Rob says. "I was thinking, 'This guy is nuts. No one in Europe is doing this.' No one had the balls."

As sous chef, he says they set about creating food that "was so far ahead of its time". 

"We worked incredibly bullshit hours that we would get crucified for now," he says. "We were doing 120 for lunch. Dinners went from 60 to 120 with ten to fifteen services a week. It was such a high – if you're addicted to adrenaline that's like your heroin."

It took a move to Melbourne, following two years with Chui Lee Luk at Claude's, for beer to enter Rob's professional life in a serious way, initially after he made contact with a couple planning to open a gastropub at The Montague in South Melbourne. 

"They had the whole Emerson's range there," he recalls of the venue where John Lethlean described his food as "producing a Ferrari on Fiat money". The couple sold the pub, he got a good bonus and crossed to Hotel Max in South Yarra, which is where he says "the legacy of Rob and beer began".

He became good mates with John Cope-Williams, who was importing and distributing Kiwi beer from the likes of Epic and Emerson's under the Better Beer banner. 

"He suggested doing a beer dinner. I said, 'What, like a wine dinner?'," Rob says. "This was 2009/10 and they would sell out on a Monday night. The place was thumping with people drinking good beer. 

"They were amazing value: $50 – ridiculous! Then the owners stop paying bills and staff and it imploded really fast..."

 

The "cigar" with which Rob closed the second Vrolijke Boot, featuring "ash" created from cabbage and hay and paired with Boatrocker's Ramjet.

 

He and Bron had suspected something was awry and were already scoping potential sites for their own place. They took over Bar Jule's, a short walk from Westgarth's Palace Cinema, and spent a month renovating, painting, cleaning, putting in tables.

"The day before opening Bron and I had a massive blue over whether we'd done the right thing – divorce material," Rob says. "But we got back together. She bought me a Blood, Sweat and Tears from de Molen. We drank the beer, said we'd never fight again – and then the next six years was a blur."

During that time, Rob won rave reviews for his food, their cheese trolley became a thing of legend, Bron picked up Best Short Wine List three years in a row, and they began exploring beer and food pairing as never before. Costa Nikias wandered in with champagne bottles of the first batches of La Sirène Saison which blew the couple away. Soon after, they met Matt Houghton from Boatrocker for the first time and Rob had found his beer wife.

"We tasted something from his first barrel and I started getting emotional and homesick," Rob says. John from Better Beer suggested they did a dinner with Matt and the Vrolijke Boot series, one of which ended with Rob serving a remarkable smoking chocolate cigar paired with Ramjet, was conceived.

The beer list became ever-changing, they'd try to work out where to take their regulars' palates next and how they might be able to surprise them. As their knowledge of beer and food pairing grew, they started hosting beer schools.

Then Peter Gilmore came knocking. He was to spend time away from Quay and needed someone he could trust to step in. Four years back in Sydney as chef de cuisine followed before the call of Melbourne and a desire to spend more time with Bron brought him back to Victoria. They bought five acres near Daylesford intended for their retirement, Bron was already working at du Fermier in Trentham, while he, quite simply, "wanted to do nothing". 

"I built some veggie boxes, cleared some paddocks, and cooked dinner for Bron every night. But the boredom starting to build slowly but surely.

 

Bitterballen – or Dutch meatballs – one of Rob's favourite snack dishes.

 

"I looked at some serious jobs but there was little that appealed. The biggest question was, 'What do I want to do?' and after Quay there's not much better. You've touched the pinnacle of Australian dining, so I looked at doing something more lo-fi. I couldn't annoy Bronwyn much longer."

Ultimately, he realised he wanted to open a Merricote in Melbourne's CBD and, following various conversations over coffee, Adi Halim, the owner of Hotel Windsor, suggested utilising part of his hotel. And thus Lekker! was born, with a function space reworked to offer reflections of Rob's Dutch background in which he could bring his vision to life again.

He describes the base offering there as serious, inspired by the neo-bistro movement born in Paris, but with fun at the heart of everything they do too – "A lot of people forget the humour these days," he says – with a menu that's ever-changing.

It opened in December and is slated to run at least until the end of March. And, while the beer list is tight, it has room for the likes of Boatrocker, La Sirène, Molly Rose, Dollar Bill and De Ranke. And, if you ask about the "off list" selection, you might find bottles of rarities Rob's been hoarding in his cellar for a few years.

"Within sommeliers, there's a movement towards this," he says of the reevaluation of beer within the restaurant world. "The old traditional sommelier is almost dead: cellaring things for 50 years just isn’t economical. They have to try to have something new.

"The movement is definitely coming but there are still beers out there – bad beers – that can put people off."

Creating the right experience, the perfect pairing, doing it with humour, and hoping to spark a conversation is key to his approach.

"If someone has had a bad day then I can do everything in my power to make them feel better," he says. "There's not many other industries that can do that and it's important we remember that. 

"I'm going to take you for a ride; we will take your money but you will feel safe and trust me. The second or third time, you won't even have to think: you will have the beer match."


Lekker! is open Wednesday to Saturday evenings and Fridays for lunch within Hotel Windsor, 1 Bourke Street, Melbourne.

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