When renowned Adelaide chef David Swain and his partner Sarah Munn entertain in their seaside home, it’s all about taking time out to connect with family and friends through a shared love of food.
Simple pleasures: Lunch at David Swain’s house
David Swain is that rare breed of professional chef who loves to cook at home. When he’s not whipping up award-winning dishes at his Fino restaurants, or running the business from behind the scenes, the talented cook is happiest at home creating rustic fare for his family and friends.
Today, David and his partner Sarah Munn are busily preparing a three-course feast at their beachside home for a group of close friends, all buddies from the hospitality industry.
Guests include the couple’s Fino business partner Sharon Romeo, her partner Jessica Tummel, Fino Seppeltsfield’s executive chef Sam Smith and his partner Hannah Moors (who works at Barossa winery Rockford), along with Emma Baxter and Gerard Liddle, owners of the legendary Russell’s Pizza in Willunga.
It’s a relaxed gathering on a sunny afternoon and guests loiter around the kitchen bench sipping Deviation Road Beltana Blanc de Blanc as David shucks the Gazander Coffin Bay oysters.
As the socialising goes on around him, David prepares the entree of SA King prawns with fermented chilli, black garlic and miso paste, prepared the day before, and new season leeks and artichokes. Guests then gradually migrate to the front garden where David grills these basted delights on his beloved hibachi barbecue.
Considering Sarah and David have been a couple for almost 40 years, it makes sense that they communicate so well when entertaining at home. Sarah is shelling peas as she describes how things work in the home kitchen.
“He cooks, I help with prep and clean up,” she says. “But we’re both pretty organised and David is a very clean cook; there’s never a big mess.”
Sarah is part of the Fino team, keeping the books balanced as well as working on the floor when needed. This is a family used to the long hours and demands of a hospitality life, which can make finding down-time difficult.
“We like to entertain at home but we just don’t get the opportunity very often,” Sarah says. “Also, because so much of our work is people-focused, I have to admit that on days off we often just bunker down at home and do the gardening, or go for walks on the beach.”
Working and living together also means there has to be a clear boundary around discussing work at home.
“It’s impossible not to talk about work at home but I do have a strict rule that there is no work talk in our bedroom,” Sarah says. “There will be times when I say, ‘I don’t want to talk about that now, we need to have a whole day where we don’t discuss anything about work’.”
Watching David create in his home kitchen is to witness an artist at work: in his confident yet understated way, he pulls together the elements of his masterpiece. Today, chicken stock simmers away before being added to the saffron rice with salted mulloway; this is served with sides of borlotti beans and a fennel and kohlrabi salad. It may be simple, seasonal fare but in the hands of this celebrated chef it becomes so much more.
During the past 35 years, David has established himself as one of Australia’s most authentic, talented chefs, pioneering a trend towards fresh, regional produce.
To fund his university studies in industrial design, David worked as a kitchen hand at legendary North Adelaide restaurant Mistress Augustine’s, run by SA food icon Ann Oliver. When one of the junior chefs didn’t turn up one night, Ann threw David in the deep end – and he thrived.
The young foodie’s natural talent and love of cooking was apparent and Ann urged him to forget his studies and learn the restaurant ropes with her, but David resisted.
“She could see David’s creativity and she knew the way he presented things would be better utilised in food than design,” Sarah says.
David’s deciding moment came when he was riding his Vespa to university and all his work accidentally slid off the back of the scooter and got run over by a truck on South Road.
“So, I just turned around and rode straight to Mistress Augustine’s and said to Ann, ‘I’ll take the job’,” David says.
By then, he had already been cooking at home for years, taking over the family meals at just 12 years of age. Describing his mum Helen as a “meat and three veg” kind of cook, David says the clincher came when he saw her break up pasta to fit it into the pot.
“That was it,” he says. “I said, ‘okay, I’m taking over the cooking. She didn’t mind, I think Mum was probably relieved. My sister Sarah also liked to cook so we used to do it together.
“Dad was a really good cook but he would only cook on Sundays because he was so busy at work.”
David has memories of his parents entertaining at the family home in Urrbrae, with pre-dinner drinks around the pool and al fresco dining in an old stable/shed that had been converted into an entertaining area.
But it was through dating Sarah that David was first exposed to a more rustic, European approach to food, thanks to Sarah’s Italian heritage.
“My grandmother Fernanda was a really good cook,” Sarah says. “The first time David came to the family lunch, my grandparents had greens in the garden, all the baby lettuces that we take for granted now but you would never have seen in the supermarket in the ’80s. David loved all of that.”
Sarah says she could “fend for herself” in the cooking stakes by the time she and David were living in share houses but says “we didn’t cook much at home, we were pretty loose”.
“We were young punks with mohawks and attitude,” she laughs.
“Admittedly we were in it for the fashion rather than being hardcore anarchists. I mean we did full punk regalia and then took to the rockabilly style for a while.”
Sarah, who studied to become a dancer, says they headed to Europe in the late 1980s, eventually returning to Adelaide in 1989. David worked at Jolley’s Boathouse for a year before the young couple packed up and moved to Melbourne in search of new challenges.
It was a dynamic and vibrant time to be immersed in the Melbourne food scene and David quickly secured a gig as head chef at The Melbourne Wine Room at The George Hotel in St Kilda. It was a prestigious posting and David describes this time as a turning point in his career.
“I say that because The George is where I made a profession from the job,” he says. “My cooking career as such was quite basic until I moved to Melbourne. At The George I got to work with executive chef Jeremy Strode who was a Michelin-star trained chef in a very famous London restaurant called La Tante Claire where he worked with a respected chef called Pierre Koffman, so Jeremy brought that international credibility.
“He was also technically trained and had worked in large brigade systems, which is a type of management system in restaurant kitchens. That was an incredible five years with Jeremy. I had never been a head chef before that and I learnt so much.”
Another major influence on the young chef during this time was the owner of The George, Donlevy Fitzpatrick, who also ran legendary Melbourne eatery Dog’s Bar.
Donlevy was instrumental in introducing the idea of small bars and a casual, more European-style of dining.
“It all taught me how to be a real chef, how to manage a kitchen overseeing about 14 or 15 full-time chefs. The George ran for 24 hours because it also had a bakery outlet, plus a front bar, cafe, restaurant, and a downstairs bar called The Snake Pit. It was the place to be. I remember Kylie Minogue used to hang out there a lot when she was back in Australia.”
When David and Sarah’s first son Zeph was born in 1994, Sarah admits she began to feel a bit like a “chef’s widow” for the first time.
“That was just the way it was,” she says. “We knew as soon as David started working in Melbourne that this was an opportunity to really get to the next level.”
David rose through the ranks on natural talents, establishing himself as a star of the Australian food scene through his love of simple, honest cooking.
“I don’t muck around with food,” he says. “I think some chefs can overcomplicate it. I think the great chefs don’t do too much to the food.”
From The George, David moved to another hip Melbourne restaurant, Veludo. It was a magnet for big money, big fashion and big-name celebrities.
“Both The George and Veludo were profile places in Melbourne at the time,” David says. “I remember we did the after-parties for Destiny’s Child and things like that. It was great fun.”
While quietly confident and humble, David admits to being “a bit ambitious” throughout his career. Part of that ambition was to one day open his own restaurant. That notion began to crystalise when the couple’s second son Abel arrived in early 2000 and thoughts of a return to South Australia began, aimed at creating a more affordable lifestyle around family.
David was particularly keen on the Fleurieu Peninsula, where he used to holiday as a child. The turning point came when Veludo was sold to a big beer company.
“It was the catalyst we needed to make the move back to South Australia,” Sarah says. They bought an “old shack” at Aldinga Beach, and word soon spread through hospitality circles that David was back in town. He was snapped up by John Garcia and Zanny Twopenny, who were then running the Star of Greece.
“David started work there and only had to do a couple of nights a week,” Sarah says. “It was such an amazing time. It was summer and I felt like I had moved into this incredible beach shack and I never had to leave. It was so good.
“We also tapped into this incredible community because the kids started at the Willunga Waldorf School and there were all these people whose values really aligned with ours.”
It was at the Star of Greece that Sharon and David first worked together and “just clicked”.
“Sharon is just so much fun to work with,” David says, “Just her energy and her passion is exciting.
“The food I put on a plate she got excited by, and I got excited by her service. For a lot of people in this industry it’s just a job but it wasn’t for Sharon, and cooking was never just a job for me, it was actually what I wanted to do.”
It was a savvy hospitality match made in heaven and the duo began looking for the perfect venue to run together. It appeared in 2006 in the shape of the Black Duck Winery cellar door in Willunga.
“We put in an offer and the next thing we knew we had our own restaurant,” David says.
They quickly set about paring back the quaint 1850s space, which had slate floors and rustic stone walls. Fino officially opened in May 2006 on a shoestring budget and with no fanfare.
“It was very under-the-radar for a long time and it took a while for people to understand what we were doing in this little country restaurant,” Sarah says.
“Then the winemakers came and Sharon always kept a list with local wines contrasted with imported wines, with a lot of new and emerging grape varieties that we hadn’t seen so much here, so the winemakers loved it.”
Gradually, Fino took off as word spread about this authentic country gem. The awards followed, including Restaurant of the Year in 2008.
“Willunga was so special,” David says. “It was small and intimate and I cooked everything and touched every piece of food that went out. You walked through that door and you weren’t in Australia, you were transported to this little European eatery. It was beautiful and we just loved the town of Willunga and the farmers’ market. Willunga was 10 years of joy. I miss it.”
The restaurant closed its doors in 2016 having “run its course”, Sarah says. By then, wine entrepreneur Warren Randall, a Fino regular, had offered the talented team a deal too good to refuse – to open Fino at Seppeltsfield in the Barossa, which he was in the process of transforming. They accepted the offer and have gone from an intimate 50-seater in Willunga to a huge 150-seater venue at Seppeltsfield.
“It’s a beast,” David says. “It’s been great and we’ve loved the chance to expand, but it was a bit overwhelming as well.
“Because it’s so big, it has to be managed very tightly and strictly because as you get bigger, you have to reduce the risk of mistakes because it can come back and bite you so hard.
“But everything up there now is a formula, running like clockwork. It has to be that way if you want to feed 150 people on a Sunday in a couple of hours. It’s just a mega factory – in a good way.”
Today, even while socialising with friends, Sharon takes the lead with the wine, moving around the table and topping up glasses. It’s clear that looking after people comes naturally to this friendly face, who has created her own reputation for genuine, professional service with a good dash of fun.
However, times have been tough in recent years since the Fino team opened their city venture Fino Vino in 2019. David describes the past 18 months as a “tough slog”, as COVID has taken its toll on the hospitality industry generally.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the worst yet, either, but we are about to see it. It really has been touch-and-go,” he says.
Despite the challenges of the industry David and Sarah’s sons have both followed in their footsteps. Son Zeph, 25, and his wife Penda have just launched a pop-up pizza business called Ergo Pizza, while younger son Abel, 21, currently works at Russell’s Pizza but has more of a passion for music and DJing.
“We are really encouraging of them both and they’re doing a great job,” Sarah says.
As David prepares dessert for the day, crema Catalana (the only dish that has always been on the Fino menu) he is reflective about his ongoing passion for food and a lifestyle built around friends and family.
“Cooking is great, it just brings families together,” he says. “I think the best thing for me about cooking at home is the space it creates for conversation and connecting.
“Putting a beautiful meal on the table makes it easy for everyone to relax and just enjoy being together. The best part about a day like today is that we’ve all committed to take a moment out from our busy lives and spend some time together. It makes me happy to feed everyone while doing that.”
This story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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