All you need is love

Robert Molines talks about a life full of culinary (and other) adventures. 

It’s Thursday, the first day of the week and just two hours before lunch starts when I meet Robert Molines and his team at Bistro Molines, at Tallavera Grove vineyard in the picturesque Hunter Valley. Perhaps it’s the idyllic setting, the rolling hills or the patchwork quilt of vineyards that are perfectly framed through every window of this French Provincial setting, but there’s an immediate sense of contentment in this kitchen. It’s efficient, yet joyous, controlled, yet creative and so very clearly a happy place to be. Robert Molines, an Algerian born, French man, turns 68 this year and yet he still has a sparkle in his eye as if he were just starting out on his vast and colourful career. As you might expect, his relationship with food is something deep within him, an instinct he says that has always been there and a pivotal part of his upbringing. “It wasn’t like something triggered or sparked my love for food or need to do something with it, it’s always been there, how can it not be growing up in Europe? It’s a part of you, a part of the everyday there. Food is always celebrated in Europe, just as it should be.”

Growing up in the South of France, Robert’s youth was in some respects out of the ordinary; an exceptionally driven mother, an Italian stepfather who was a chef for the Palace in Monaco and a short, but “frustrating” stint in boarding school, that he likens to being kept in a cage. By 14 years of age, Robert had convinced his mother to allow him to leave boarding school and take a place at the Catering Institute in Menton. It was here he absorbed himself in every aspect of food, spending long days consumed in an industry that would later have much to owe this charming young man. At 15 he landed his first job as a kitchen apprentice, at La Mariniere in Villefranchesur- Mer. Just two years later, his mother was posted to a position with the French Consulate in Melbourne and life took yet another exciting turn.

From 1968 to 1973 Robert’s life detailed a rich tapestry of culinary adventures and long-lasting friendships as he cooked his way though some of the most notable restaurants in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. But it was a visit to see family in the Hunter Valley with his then soon-to-be wife Sally, that would ignite the next significant chapter of the Robert Molines story and spark a thriving hub of gastronomy in the Hunter region. By 1978 his career had led him to the helm of The Cellar Restaurant (part of Hungerford Hill), bringing fine dining to the Hunter. Robert says, “Back then I would drive my ute the four hours or so to Sydney, loaded with eskies and stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and seafood to bring back to the restaurant.”

Slowly he began to introduce new dishes to diners, celebrating fresh produce with influence from his European heritage, gleaning a loyal following of customers. It was during this time that Robert and Sally began catering for Rothbury Estate, forging a long and dearly held friendship with the late Len Evans. For the next 10 years or so, Robert’s career took twists and turns of unimaginable proportions. Rolling off his tongue, with a genuine fondness, are countless restaurant names, notable business partners, and well known media identities.

His career could fill a gastronomy bible yet there’s not a hint of arrogance, he is humble and holds dearly to his oftentumultuous journey. There’s been debt, doubt and a relentless number of hours dedicated to his love for sharing food. Robert is a sharer, a giver and in return he has received. For the opportunities that have been extended to him, for the raft of support when opening Bistro Molines in 2008 (with one six-burner stove and a $65 convection oven to his name) his gratitude is evident: “The support I have been shown over the years is incredible and it is, for me, the meaning of everything. Integrity, it sounds cliché, but it is everything to me.” Robert has mentored countless aspiring careers, plated endless numbers of breathtaking dishes and contributed an immeasurable amount to an industry he so clearly lives for. So much so he was awarded an Order of Australia in 2006. As we sit in his beautiful restaurant, there’s a hive of activity from suppliers and staff coming and going. There’s an ease you don’t often associate with a chef of such high regard; there’s banter with the kitchen staff, yet the respect is almost palpable.

He’s invested wholeheartedly in Bistro Molines to create this welcoming room with a view. With Sally at front of house, the duo has created a picture-perfect experience, that shakes off the pretention that so often accompanies dining of such calibre. Robert sums it up beautifully: “If we can put a little bit of love on every plate of food we share, then we have achieved what we set out to do. That is all that really matters.”
Bistro Molines is open for lunch Thursday- Monday, noon-3pm and dinner Friday-Saturday 7pm-9pm. Reservations are essential (02) 4990 9553
Story by Lesley Horsburgh, photography courtesy of Bistro Molines