Restaurant Botanica, hidden among the grapevines and gum trees of Spicers Vineyard Estate, just outside Pokolbin in the heart of Hunter Valley wine country, has been refining its sophisticated style under new head chef Adam Frey, whose unique qualifications for the job include a rare appreciation of exceptional produce and a career spent cooking in marvellous country locations.

Botanica has always built its cuisine on its market garden (complete with beehives and a resident pig) and a host of small-scale farmers and suppliers, showcasing the Hunter region and bringing a compelling spontaneity to the table.

Under Frey, the quintessential modern Australian dining style of Botanica is broadening its appeal with new culinary options, influences from around the globe, and closer connections to local wine producers. “I love the prolific wildlife and scenery here, and the ability to use fresh produce from the garden,” says Frey. “It’s really a great close-knit team, we have an amazing bond in the kitchen.”

Gloriously reminiscent of the French countryside, the spacious country estate is set among 22 glorious acres scattered with majestic gum trees, vineyards and the Brokenback Range framing the horizon.

The architecture is enchanting, the atmosphere refined, the mood relaxed and intimate. Exquisite gardens and shaded courtyards provide quiet sanctuary, while the light-filled lounge, cosy fireplaces and dining spaces are your blank canvas for the perfect day. It’s the perfect romantic base to experience life and explore the delights of Hunter Valley.

Generous, balanced and approachable

Botanica’s style is sometimes adventurous, sometimes playful, but always generous, balanced and approachable, with a modern, heartfelt take on the classic bistro.

Frey says, “I love the flavours our freshly picked herbs and flowers bring to the hero ingredients, especially our veg and protein rich dishes, and even our breakfasts too, which makes Botanica a little different from other venues.”

His preferred cooking techniques also reflect a passion for simplicity and low-tech cooking through fermentation, pickling and emulsification, and sous vide is also on the list, as a masterful technique for showing respect to the whole animal.

“To me, Alinea by Grant Achatz represents the best of the molecular gastronomy movement,” explains Frey, “he has such brilliant fundamentals and exquisite taste, paired with a groundbreaking approach to technique and equipment.”

“My preference is not for heavy or sickly-sweet deserts to finish a meal,” Frey says, “I prefer something like the coconut and kaffir lime tapioca we currently have on the desserts list – the flavours just work so well together.”

Celebrating local flavour

Frey has some favourite dishes from the current menu: the simplicity of the house-made ciabatta with beurre noisette, and the grilled Fremantle octopus with squid ink, “it’s a very colourful, beautiful dish with Szechuan influence,” Frey explains, “it shows how to celebrate the core ingredients and keep it simple.”

Botanica supports local as much as possible, and head chef Frey works with nearby producers, including the family-owned Little Hill Farm in the foothills of the Watagan Mountains, to source chemical-free produce.

“Cooking alongside local wineries for degustation dinners has been one of my greatest inspirations at Botanica. Pairing wines with specific dishes and ingredients is so creative and so much fun, especially with Dan Binet from Binet Family Wines, who creates magic in the glass.”

The passion the entire staff have for Botanica’s beverage selection supports the restaurant’s connection to the local wine industry, which was rewarded this year with the highest three-glass rating in the prestigious Australia’s Wine List of the Year Awards, and innovative cocktails are not to be ignored.

An adventure for the palate

Head chef Frey has a strong connection to the Hunter, having come to Botanica from Red Salt at Crowne Plaza in Lovedale (relaunched in May as Rydges Resort) where he was sous chef from 2021, the same region where he was head chef of Nana Kerr’s Kitchen (now closed), in a picturesque vineyard setting. Just down the road in Pokolbin, Frey has been personal chef to a VIP family for daily meals and private events and was previously part of the Botanica kitchen team as chef de partie.

However, it was his time as chef de cuisine at Restaurant Eighty-Eight in the historic Convent property in Lovedale that fuelled Frey’s passion for creating refined cooking experiences. “Each booking was an opportunity to provide an adventure for the palate,” he recalls. “I had the opportunity to design seasonal menus alongside the onsite garden teams, and prepare wine dinners in collaboration with local wineries.”

Beyond the thriving Hunter Valley food and wine scene, in 2019 Frey travelled the East Coast of Australia in a caravan with his young family, doing contract work as sous chef at a host of different restaurants, hotels, resorts and defence force bases. He says, “I’ve seen the diversity of Australia’s hospitality population! Some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten have been cooked by my fellow chefs for a staff meal.”

Frey remembers his own youthful food experiences: “When I was young, I remember helping my mother prepare our meals, and baking with my grandparents. I think that’s why I love to spend time with my kids, cooking and gardening, or going on bushwalks.”

In tune with nature’s bounty

Tending to the garden is a daily task for Frey, “I’m currently growing an array of edible flowers and herbs,” he says, “it’s amazing to watch the plants grow and show our staff and guests exactly where an ingredient is coming from.”

For every meal, Botanica serves complimentary fresh market crudities with a new dip each day. Visitors see the kitchen team and the property’s gardeners selecting the freshest, most flavoursome fruit, vegetables and herbs, which also take Botanica’s vegetarian and vegan menu options to a new level.

“I’m inspired by the incredible vegan cuisine at Smith + Daughters restaurant [Collingwood, VIC] because access to this kind of fresh produce inspires me to create new menu ideas,” Frey explains.

Spicers’ commitment to sustainability is from the ground up. Organic waste from the Botanica kitchen is composted then added to the vegetable garden, although some of the choicest vegetable off-cuts are given to the resident pig. “Wiglet and I spend lots of time together in the garden,” laughs Frey, “she loves the scraps we select for her and comes running when I call her name!”

The Estate has recently introduced beehives to the vineyards, just a short distance from the garden, and you can see and hear them buzzing around the property, pollinating anything that flowers and making honey for the hungry humans.

Be inventive and playful

In the period where head chef Frey took over from Chris Rhoney a few months ago, the Botanica team has seen a host of internal promotions. “The team is small, but we have created an amazing bond in the kitchen; we work so well together, bouncing ideas and having a laugh while doing it.”

The past year has seen Botanica awarded a Chef’s Hat in the 2023 Australian Good Food Guide; awarded an Australian Good Food Guide 2023 Readers’ Choice Award; and a finalist in the 2023 Tourism Accommodation Australia NSW Awards for Excellence, setting the dedicated kitchen and front of house crew a high standard to maintain.

Luckily, Botanica head chef Frey has some words of wisdom for any keen chef, “Keep it simple, celebrate beautiful ingredients; life is too short for bad food and bad wine, and be inventive and playful.”

One of Chef Frey’s culinary loves is Asian flavours from his time in Brisbane, where he connected to the Japanese and Korean influence from the city’s dining culture – he professes that some of his favourite ingredients are gochujang chilli paste, miso, koji cultured rice, and bonito flakes, and his top proteins include duck and tofu.

Connect with a greener pace of life

With just 12 luxury suites plus a separate four-bedroom Vineyard House (with private pool), each with its own fireplace and spa facilities, the Estate is ideal for intimate events and long, convivial days and nights enjoying some of the region’s finest cuisine and wine with friends, family or colleagues.

The adventures and experiences at Spicers Vineyards Estate can be as relaxing and rejuvenating as quietly reading a book in the garden or an indulgent treatment in the onsite Spa Anise, or as exciting and exhilarating as a hot air balloon flight, or swoop over wine country on a private helicopter tour.

You might want to pick up an in-house gourmet picnic hamper and find a sweet spot in the shade, take a dip in the pool or cycle through wine country, there are plenty of ways to ease the mind and connect with a greener pace of life at Spicers Vineyards Estate.

Restaurant Botanica and the Estate are a two-hour drive from Sydney or one hour from Newcastle; Sydney Airport is 190km away, Newcastle Airport is 80km. Transfers are available upon request.