A tall man with a wiry beard and a flat cap greets me in the kitchen of the Bangalow Bowling Club. It’s only 10.00am but already he’s got a huge pot of pork belly on the stove. This is Graeme Stockdale, one half of the brains behind catering and restaurant team, The Stockpot Kitchen.
Graeme and his wife, Jen, started their catering company after Graeme lost his job as head chef at Liliana’s Café when it closed last year. “I’d never had a job pulled out from under me before”, Graeme says earnestly. It’s only a moment, though, before he’s smiling again, resolute about their decision to go it alone. “Even if it falls on its arse and ruins me at least I’ve tried it!”
When they first started The Stockpot Kitchen, Graeme says the goal was that after one year it would be his full-time job. In serendipitous timing, in July this year Graeme and Jen took up permanent residence in the Bangalow Bowling Club, serving their hearty, home-style fare for dinner Tuesday to Saturday. “It’s just gone boom”, says Graeme. The combination of à la carte, curry Tuesdays and Southern fried chicken Thursdays have been so popular there’s sometimes not a spare seat in the house.
Graeme’s cooking style is based around food that brings people together and can be shared among the hungry hordes, however large they may be. “It’s all stuff I’d cook at home”, he says, either for his own family or if there are lots of people coming over, which is apparently a regular occurrence. His influences change regularly, depending on what he’s reading, or what he’s eating.
“Cultures who share a big table of food, sharing condiments and plates of food, that’s what excites me”, says Graeme. American-style barbequing and smoking are some of his current cravings, with rubs, marinades, sauces and slaws all having their moment in the sun alongside succulent cuts of slow-cooked meat.
Graeme and Jen have been in the Northern Rivers for 11 years now, after they came over from Western Australia to work in the snow season at Thredbo. They passed through this area on a trip north to visit Jen’s family in Queensland and just loved it.
Both Graeme and Jen have a long history of working in restaurants, Graeme as a chef and Jen as a pastry chef. They even worked together for 5 years in the kitchen at Utopia Café in Bangalow before Jen left hospitality to go into youth work. Today Jen still works a 9-to-5 day in Lismore before working at the bowling club most nights, as well as making desserts for the restaurant and catering events.
Graeme, Jen and their two boys, Sebastian and Obi, live in Bexhill on a one-acre block, which Graeme says is “big enough for a few massive gardens.” The gardens are Jen’s turf, where she grows green leafy things like kale, rocket, and cabbage that end up on the table at home and at the restaurant.
The couple love supporting other local producers, using meat, coffee, vegetables and herbs sourced from down the road or across the valley. Trading food with friends is also a great way to use whatever is plentiful and in season, such as fresh Bexhill mandarin marmalade that recently found its way into a dessert. “I made a marmalade frangipane tart, it was off the hook! And I don’t even like marmalade”, laughs Graeme.
Condiments are key elements in The Stockpot’s dishes, and Graeme loves experimenting with making his own sauces, pickles and relishes. He lifts the lid on an enormous tub of sweetly fermenting chillies sitting on the bench top awaiting transformation into hot sauce. Thanks to his Polish and German heritage, Graeme also loves cabbage, and as if proof is needed, beside the chillies sits a second huge tub, filled to the brim with chopped cabbage fermenting its way to sauerkraut.
The process of cooking and assembling each dish seems to hold just as much enjoyment for Graeme as seeing his diners satisfied after a good feed. And that’s saying something!
“I’m really loving cooking with fire,” says Graeme, with childlike glee painted all over his face. “A big grill, a rotisserie, a smoker. I’ve got all the stuff I need. It’s just a matter of finding stuff to play with.”