Meet the Chef: Eileen Horsnell at Napier Quarter
It wasn’t until Eileen Horsnell started working with wonderful produce, nearly 10 years after she started in a kitchen, that her interest in a life as a chef was truly sparked. Eileen has been the head chef of Melbourne’s neighbourhood restaurant, Napier Quarter, for the past three years before recently stepping into a more creative role. Her menus are made up of plates often reading with no more than three ingredients; “Great Ocean Road duck, Alpine strawberries, buckwheat”, or perhaps “Stracciatella, cime di rapa, black garlic”. It’s the power of simplicity. It’s an art. And it requires a strong sense of values, a great deal of care and a solid but subtle confidence. And that’s what this all-day, much-loved corner restaurant, so deeply woven into the Fitzroy community, exudes, with Eileen’s produce-driven food at the heart.
We spoke with Eileen about her life in food, from the path to becoming a chef to the regional life she lives today. Along with this interview, Eileen has given us a taste of what her approach to food is all about though a recipe centered around the much-loved Holy Goat cheese from central Victoria where Eileen is now learning the ins and outs of cheesemaking. Bon appétit.
On the journey to becoming a chef…
I grew up on the Central Coast of New South Wales. I left school really young, at 15, with an unstable home life. Cooking was one thing I really enjoyed doing because it brought stability and comfort to my life, so I started cooking in a small local restaurant. Now that I look back, I honestly had no idea what I was doing but working in a kitchen definitely kept me out of trouble. My interest wasn’t truly sparked until I started working with great produce, but I was immediately addicted to the late-night lifestyle and adrenaline rush of a bustling kitchen.
On what has been most impactful on Eileen’s culinary education…
I started working at a restaurant called Mondo Organics at 23. It was there I met Brenda Fawdon who became a massive inspiration and to this day, is an important mentor of mine. She introduced me to organic farming and local produce. Brenda was strong, confident and knowledgeable. I am the person I am today, and have had the career I’ve had, because of working with her. No only did Brenda teach me about food, she taught me about emotional maturity, and how to be a leader. She definitely lit the fire in me and suddenly the whole food world made so much sense.
On what Napier Quarter is all about…
Napier is about quality, community and the artisan. This is the philosophy we run the restaurant by. Daniel and I have worked together for ten years now, and Simon and I for six (co-owners of Napier Quarter). The three of us hold these values high so it makes a great trio. The food focus is on local, small-scale growers and makers. From our tiny kitchen we simply want to create food that we’d like to eat while drinking a glass of wine. I want it to be educational but not confronting.
On a shift for Eileen…
My role at Napier Quarter has shifted to a creative position. I no longer do service in the restaurant; I create menus and assist the kitchen manager in leading the team. I moved regionally to Newstead, about 90 minutes out of Melbourne, at the start of this year and took a step back from full-time kitchen responsibilities. After 22 years in a kitchen I needed to connect with the produce rather than the end product. This has been an enormous shift for me and the Napier team. I am now learning to be an artisan cheese maker at Holy Goat—a long-time dream of mine. Daniel also has a patch of land in Newstead 5 minutes from my place and we’re learning as we go, but we’d like to grow the farm to be a sustainable source of produce for the kitchen.
On what sparked the beloved NQ anchovy and boiled egg on toast…
To be honest it was so long ago I can hardly remember. I think Dan and I were talking about something small yet substantial to eat on toast with a glass of wine. We wanted it to be a quick snippet of what we’re about for people stopping in. Great bread, great eggs, the best anchovies, dill, capers and mayo; can’t go wrong really. I never thought we’d be known for a toast dish but it can never come off the menu now.
Eileen wears an IN BED 100% linen apron in Pine.
On what drives day-in and day-out…
The family and community food builds. This includes every person it takes to put a dish together. And the sharing of knowledge that we’re all so lucky to hold.
On what inspires most in cooking and developing dishes…
Seasons and colours. I see every season as a colour, and shade, in my mind and I build from there.
On unwinding and recharging…
On my days off I like to move slowly. My partner has recently been diagnosed with MS so our lives have changed dramatically. I try to take the load off them as they’re a small business owner and make sure we spend quality time together. We have a baby on the way so we’re making the most of downtime now.
On evening routines…
I didn’t know what to do with myself when I stopped working nights. I filled that empty space with drinking wine. Thankfully now I have a much healthier routine of cooking nourishing food for my partner. I'm extremely focused on their diet—food is the best medicine.
On an interest in cheesemaking…
I have always had a passion for the artisan, especially cheesemakers. I find as a chef you can tend to be the jack of all trades but the master of none. I want to learn everything I can about cheesemaking, starting from the importance of animal health to producing good milk to the scientific knowledge of making cheese. I am truly enjoying having the privilege of learning from some of the best cheesemakers in Australia and building the importance of cheesemaking culture.
On what’s thrilling produce-wise at the moment…
As we move into spring I always first look forward to the flowers, then to the pods. As we head into summer I’m all about tomatoes and calamari—I can't get enough of either of them.
Pictured in Napier Quarter’s guest house above the restaurant is an IN BED 100% linen Market Bag in Marigold.
On a shifting culture in kitchens to a more balanced, mindful workplace…
I would say it's still a work in progress. Kitchens have a lot of ego and bravado. It’s going to take a bit more than cutting people’s hours down to change that culture.
On what’s ahead…
I see myself regionally in the future, and cooking food on a smaller scale for the local community. I want to make food that is more accessible for everyday people. I would also like to do volunteer-based workshops on cooking at home with nourishing food.
On whether we as a country need to shift the way we shop, eat and engage with food…
Absolutely, we have so much great produce. It's not always accessible for people so they’re left to shop at large supermarkets with little or no connection to where the food is from. Food has become a fuel rather than a ritual of bringing people together.
On snacking at home on days off…
I am terrible at planning meals for myself but a go-to is a cheese and pickle toastie, or a brown rice salad bowl. These ingredients are a staple in my home so no planning is required. But if my partner is home or friends are coming over, I usually cook to impress.
Kitchen tool? Can I say jars? Not sure it qualifies as a tool but they’re the key to preserving beautiful ingredients.
Food book? Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.
Place to perch for a glass and a snack in Melbourne right now? La Pinta.
Eileen’s Holy Goat silk, honeycomb, fennel pollen
This can be served as a cheese plate and is a wonderful alternative to a dessert.
Cheese serves 2 with honeycomb and lavosh leftover to store in your pantry.
110g Holy Goat silk (fresh goat’s cheese)
2 teaspoons local honey (I use Honey Fingers)
I use Holy Goat because it’s a wonderful product that’s local to me — I would suggest using a fresh goat’s cheese made around your region.
Saltbush is native to southern Australia and is usually found in dry environments. I am lucky to live in Victoria where you often see it growing so I usually forage it myself. If you can’t source it, rosemary works as a great replacement here.
500ml rice bran oil
Heat oil in a saucepan to 180C then add saltbush. Fry until the bubbles subside (this means its cooked through). Use a slotted spoon to remove the saltbush from the oil and drain onto kitchen paper until ready to serve
I like to make my own fennel pollen when fennel flowers are in season.
I simply take a bunch of fennel and place it upside down in a paper bag. I hang it until it dries and the pollen falls to the bottom of the bag. It’s best to store it in an airtight container. Fennel pollen is readily available at selected grocers if you don’t have access to fennel flowers.
The most important step in making honeycomb is to be prepared because once it’s at temperature, you have to work quickly. Prepare a flat tray with baking paper, and have a whisk and thermometer on hand.
160g castor sugar
8g bicarb soda (sifted)
Place castor sugar, honey, glucose and water into a small saucepan.
Simmer these until the sugar has melted then bring it up to the boil.
Continue to boil until it reaches 150C. Quickly sprinkle in bicarb and whisk that through for a few minutes before pouring the mixture onto your prepared tray.
Don’t be tempted to touch it until it’s completely cool. Once it’s cool, break it up as required.
1-teaspoon baking powder
25ml olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
Extra flour for rolling
Extra olive oil and salt for baking
Sift together flour and baking powder. Add salt and make a well in the centre.
Pour in oil, water and bring together with your hands until you form it into a dough. Work for around 2 minutes until it’s come together as a ball. Rest in the fridge for one hour.
Set up a pasta roller and remove the dough from the fridge.
Preheat oven to 190C and line four large trays with baking paper.
Cut dough in half keeping one half covered to stop it from drying out. Using a rolling pin, roll dough as thinly as you can into a rectangle shape on your bench. Then, roll through pasta roller on the largest setting (usually 1) continuing to dust with flour between each roll. Continue until you get to the final setting (usually 7). The dough should almost be see through at this point. Cut to desired shapes and place flat on the tray (I prefer to keep it the full length of the tray so I can break it once it’s cooked). Using extra olive oil and a pastry brush, brush oil over dough then sprinkle it with salt. Bake for around 12 minutes, checking and turning after the first 6 minutes, then every 3 thereafter until you have golden, crisp bread. Set aside to cool.
Pour fennel pollen on a small plate.
Slice cheese in half and dip cheese in pollen until the cut side is completely covered.
Place on the plate and drizzle over a teaspoon of honey.
Arrange honeycomb and saltbush to one side of the cheese and lavosh to the other.