Robert Molines: pioneer of fine dining in the Hunter

LONG VIEW: "Any success I've had has been about building relationships within the valley", chef Robert Molines says of his long-term success.

Picture by Simone De Peak
LONG VIEW: "Any success I've had has been about building relationships within the valley", chef Robert Molines says of his long-term success. Picture by Simone De Peak

At four o’clock in the morning, the sound of shoes crunching on a gravel driveway breaks the silence at Happy Valley. Keys jangle, and an old ute door moans as it’s opened for the first time that day. Every sound is amplified by the cool, still air. The young chef climbs inside and the seat squeaks before the sound is suddenly drowned out by the grumble of a cold diesel engine as it reluctantly turns over. The roar of the machine startles a few birds, causing them to scatter in the tall trees, obliterating any trace of silence still hanging in the air.

“I used to drive my ute to Sydney all the time. I would go to the markets to buy produce for the restaurant,” says French-Algerian born, Hunter Valley chef Robert Molines.

“Sometimes, I’d go to the Sydney Fish Markets and buy seafood, or buy vegetables from Tom and Frank’s, and then I'd drive it all back to Happy Valley. It was definitely a mission.”

In 1973, with his Gram Parson good looks and shaggy rock-star hair, Robert Molines and his then girlfriend Sally arrived in the Hunter Valley, both still in their early 20s, to run the Happy Valley restaurant on Oakey Creek Road, where Twine Restaurant now is. It was one of only two restaurants in the area.

“There was us and a Chinese restaurant in Cessnock. That was it,” Robert says. “The Hunter Valley was a very sleepy place in those days ... The roads around the vineyards were all dirt, no tar, and there were only two motels for people to stay in.

“Obviously, when you’re one of the only restaurants around, you draw a little attention.”

A mixture of locals and visitors began to make their way to the Happy Valley of the Hunter. The’d heard there was a young French chef in the area, and he was cooking food like no one had ever tasted before. On Saturday night, the restaurant would open for dinner with a set menu. Diners would enjoy an entree, main, and dessert, for no more than $5 a person.

“Meat was always on the menu, but in those days the steaks were always requested ‘well-done’,” Robert says, “and, of course, we couldn’t turn around and say ‘oh no, we don't do that’ ... One day, in 1974, I remember asking myself if people were ready for risotto!”

Soon enough, all that commotion made by the young chef, during those early morning runs to the big smoke, attracted the attention of local winegrowers eager to taste their wines accompanied by some novel European cuisine. Max Lake and Murray Tyrrell, two legends of the vine in the Hunter Valley, would soon be stopping in to enjoy a meal, made by Robert Molines.  

“Murray Tyrrell would always say I put too much garlic in the food,” Robert says, “and Max Lake would come in and eat like a glutton; a real lovely man, very loud. Len Evans would be the same. It was a pleasure to cook for them.”

In 1975, Robert and Sally got married. They worked as a team, running Happy Valley, with Sally out the front greeting guests, and Robert out the back creating the food. Occasionally they would host themed nights at the restaurant, transforming the space with high ceilings into far-away places, like a French market complete with a boulangerie and charcuterie, and lots of red, white, and blue.

Happy Valley Days: Chef Robert Molines in 1975.

Happy Valley Days: Chef Robert Molines in 1975.

Great fun

“I would paint a moustache on my face with a burnt cork,” Robert says. “We always had great fun.”

One night, in homage to Robert’s Algerian and Mediterranean heritage, Robert and Sally hosted an Arabian night at Happy Valley. All the tables in the restaurant were removed and replaced with long benches. Robert brought over 300 cushions and scattered them alongside the benches, which had now become tables full of exotic food.

“We had music and belly dancers, and I borrowed parachutes and draped them up in the rafters of the ceiling to make the place look like we were dining in a big tent,” Robert says. “The place was full of people, all dressed up, eating and drinking and laughing.”

Next door, between the restaurant and the Saxonvale cellar door was a private function room, decorated exactly the same as the restaurant, which was hosting the board of Saxonvale Wines and a party of potential buyers from Golin Holdings Group.

“At one point during the night, my boss came to me and said ‘Rob, I think we're running out of wine’. I said, ‘OK, but I can't help you, I have nothing to do with the wines here’. Then he said to me, ‘well, we're just about to close the deal in the other room, and we don't have anything to celebrate with. Come on, Rob, can you do something?’

“I said OK, and I got one of my chefs to go around and stand outside the cellar door and wait for me there. Then, I snuck into the private room, where they were having their meeting, and I climbed up into the ceiling and along the rafters, right above everybody’s head.”

The people in the room couldn't see Robert sneaking quietly above, because of the parachutes that had been draped over like a tent above the room.

“I was like the Pink Panther, you know, because I knew that I could access the cellar door by climbing over the wall, but I had to walk along the rafters first,” Robert says. “When I got down into the cellar door, I met the guy waiting outside and started handing him cases of wine to take back into the restaurant ... Soon, the wine starts flowing again, and everyone is happy. I asked my boss how is everything and he says, ‘Good, the deal is done’.”

A few months later, the company that bought Saxonvale Wines that night went into receivership and Robert and Sally were out of a job.

Deciding to remain in the Hunter Valley, the couple regrouped and opened The Cellar Restaurant, in the new Hungerford Hill complex on Broke Road; the present site of Hunter Valley Gardens. By that time, in 1978, there were three restaurants operating within a revitalised Wine Country. Frank Margan had established The Cottage restaurant in Wollombi, which attracted more foodies from Newcastle and Sydney, Happy Valley was still open, but operating without Robert and Sally, and, of course, The Cellar Restaurant.

“Thankfully, The Cellar Restaurant was an instant success,” Robert says. “In those days we didn't open at night, but we would do lunch seven days and we were busy all the time.”

During their time at The Cellar Restaurant, the Hunter Valley was changing. It was becoming more and more popular with tourists eager to taste Hunter wine and enjoy a relaxing weekend away. European influences began to appear on more menus throughout Australia, and the Hunter Valley was no different.

It seemed as though Robert Molines was the right man in the right place at the right time. Getting the right kind of produce into the kitchen, though, was still a little tricky.

“I'm an open person and I make friends easily,” Robert says.

“So, if someone tells me they have some rabbit, I will say, ‘Oh! Can I have one?’ I remember one time, this guy who used to sell winery equipment to the wineries around here came to me and said, ‘Hey Rob, I've got this hare I just ran over,’ and I said, ‘OK, if it's still intact, bring it to me’,” Robert recalls, laughing.

“Any success I've had has been about building relationships within the valley.”

For almost 50 years, Robert Molines has forged a Hunter Valley culture of fine food and feasting, which has nurtured some of the region’s, and Australia’s, best chefs, including, Troy Rhoades-Brown of Muse and Lesley Taylor of Hobart’s.

“I suppose, over the years, what’s developed here is a culture. For us it’s a lifestyle,” Robert says.

It’s always felt natural for me to cook, and I just love to share my knowledge and excitement for food with anyone who'll listen, especially friends ...

Robert Molines

“It’s always felt natural for me to cook, and I just love to share my knowledge and excitement for food with anyone who'll listen, especially friends ...

“One time, Len Evan’s had just come back from France and he visited me at my new restaurant, Robert's, next to Pepper Tree, and he said ‘Oh Robbie, you wouldn't believe it, I ate this soufflé with three flavours in it!’, Robert recalls with bright eyes and a broad grin.

“I said, ‘Yes?’ He said ‘Yes! There were three different layers all with different flavours; it was incredible!’ And I thought, I can do that, you know ... the bottom could be chocolate, say, and then in the middle maybe orange, and then some raspberry on top,” he continues.

“So, when you put your spoon through you get all these wonderful colours and flavours and textures. It's pretty simple, you know?”

Robert's Restaurant is fondly remembered as one of the best dining experiences in the Hunter Valley, with all manner of accolades and awards bestowed upon the flourishing chef.

True partners: Robert and Sally Molines at their Hunter Valley restaurant.

True partners: Robert and Sally Molines at their Hunter Valley restaurant.

“One day, Sally was watering the garden and I was getting ready for service when Len arrived with a lovely new blackboard as a gift for opening the restaurant, and it read, ‘Welcome to Robert’s’,” Robert says.

“I remember this made Sally upset and we had a bit of an argument back inside the restaurant, and she said to me ‘I work here just as hard as you, but it’s always about you!’

“Of course she was right,” continues Robert. “So, later on, I sneaked out, while she wasn't looking, and changed the writing on the board and wrote underneath, ‘Robert is the cook, Sally is the boss!’” 

According to Robert, Sally is the restaurant, and always has been.

“Sally is my love, my wife, the mother of my two boys, the grandmother of my grandchildren,” Robert says. “She is my rock, my critic, my trainer, my music, my inspiration, my joie de vivre. For so many years it is Sally who has greeted the guests, making them feel relaxed and welcome when they come here,” he says.

“Sure, we are a team, but Sally is the one who holds it all together, maintaining the standard with her amazing flair, which she is able to pass on to our staff.”

These days, Robert and Sally continue their Hunter culinary adventures at Mount View, overlooking the Tallavera Grove vineyard, at a place that shares both their names, Bistro Molines.

“This restaurant is the epitome of what Sally and I have achieved in the Hunter Valley,” Robert says. “This is our home and, at the end of the day, we are blessed, because of all the previous restaurants that Sally and I have had. This place is just enchanting. Our staff and guests are lovely, there are flowers everywhere, and, of course, the view is terrible.”

No longer does he need to be up before dawn to drive to the city to find the best ingredients. These days, it is delivered to his door by local growers and farmers.

That young French-Algerian chef has achieved so much, working so hard for so many years, all the while with his best friend, Sally, by his side.

He still preserves that initial enthusiasm and sense of adventure for cooking food for people, and has instilled this in each and every one of his young apprentices. Robert Molines' contribution to the Hunter Valley's food culture and cuisine is unsurpassed.

“Food is an amazing joy that you can bring to someone’s heart,” Robert says. “Cooking is about giving pleasure and an experience to people from the flavours that you combine in the food that you create. That is, fundamentally, what we are here for.”

This story Bistro Molines: Robert’s revolution first appeared on Newcastle Herald.