Lisa Margan is a lady of the land leading by example

ALL-ROUNDER: Lisa Margan is a successful restaurateur not afraid to get her hands dirty. Picture: Simone De Peak
ALL-ROUNDER: Lisa Margan is a successful restaurateur not afraid to get her hands dirty. Picture: Simone De Peak

Restaurateur Lisa Margan could very well have graced the cover of Weekender’s recent Women of Influence edition.

She is a cover-worthy kind of girl.

The mother-of-three is a university graduate with a Masters degree in nutrition; a qualified and talented chef; pioneered the concept of agri-dining in the Hunter Valley; has a “hatted” restaurant to her name; is an active and influential member of various hospitality organisations and has accepted trophies at more award ceremonies than most.

Margan has a lust for life and an inquisitive mind that craves knowledge. She is not afraid to ask questions or further her studies and just last year completed a WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits. She could have left the wine side of the business to Andrew but hey, that’s not her style. She loves a drink, a laugh and an adventure. Going hell for leather on her beloved road bike. Putting her hand up to dance competitively in Stars of Newcastle in 2016 and raising $50,000 for the Cancer Council NSW. Travelling.

She has a sense of style which sets the venues she touches apart, be it her stunning Tuscan-inspired home facing the Brokenback Range or the unique rammed-earth cellar door which has hosted many a wedding or industry lunch. Her other business, The Landing Bar & Kitchen at Honeysuckle, is similarly chic. 

Most of all, Margan is approachable and giving. In a room full of industry heavyweights at the annual Hunter Culinary Association Food Fight, Margan is always the one on her feet, laughing and working the room. 

Women played a very different role in the hospitality industry when Margan, then a high-school teacher, moved to the Hunter Valley in the late 1980s. 

She and Andrew met as students at a university bar in Sydney. She was studying applied science and food technology and he was learning all about winemaking. His father, the late Frank Margan, owned a vineyard next to Tyrrells in the 1960s, wrote The Grape and I and opened The Cottage restaurant in Cessnock in the ’70s which attracted food lovers from as far afield as Sydney – a rarity at the time.

Lisa and Andrew bought an empty paddock in the Broke Fordwich region, built a home and planted some vines. The rest is award-winning history.

Margan herself has made wine tourism an important aspect of the family business and it been recognised for the unique food and wine experience it offers visitors to the Hunter Valley. Margan Family Wines exports to at least 15 export markets. All grapes are grown and processed on site. 

“When I moved to the wine region it was quite gender focused – males mostly worked in the kitchen and females mostly front-of-house. And winemakers were mostly males,” Margan tells Weekender.

“This has all changed now with many more females taking kitchen roles and also winemaking and viticultural positions.”

The Margans moved to Bordeaux in France in the ’90s where “I cooked and he made wine”, Margan says. Upon returning to the Hunter she retrained as a chef under the expert tutelage of Robert Molines at his restaurant, The Cellar. Then, building on her Bachelor of Education/Applied Science degree, she completed a Masters in science and nutrition and worked at a hospital as a nutritionist – all while raising three young children.

Was it difficult to work and raise a family? The short answer is “yes”.

“Juggling small children and work is a circus but I am good with time management and don’t get too stressed with deadlines. Being self-employed means you can create flexibility and a better work-life balance. There was lots of night-time studying after putting the kids to bed, though.”

The hard work has been worth it. Margan restaurant was awarded its first SMH Good Food Guide Chef’s Hat in 2016.

Also, Margan herself is widely credited with pioneering agri-dining in the Hunter Valley. Ninety per cent of the produce used by her restaurant is from their garden, and meat and smallgoods are dry-aged in custom-built dry-age rooms on site.

“Of course we didn’t invent the kitchen garden – my grandparents had domestic gardens – but we do ours on a large enough scale to feed our guests every week,” she explains.

“Agri-dining is actually quite a traditional concept. Rural people have vegetable gardens, orchards, chickens and so on and I wanted to create a restaurant where our guests could experience a little bit of that when they dined with us. We pioneered our kitchen garden and orchard more than a decade ago and have added to it with chickens, olive groves, bee hives and our own estate-reared lambs.

“I love the fact that this has become a trend of sorts for restaurants as it helps connect the diner with their food source and keeps things truly seasonal and local. We are in a rural area and have the luxury of space for our estate-grown and estate-made produce but even small gardens or pots can make a difference.

“I’m always inspired by the produce we grow ourselves at Margan.”

She is also inspired by – and works closely with – on-site horticulturalist Pat Hansson who tenderly cares for the estate’s one-acre garden. She knows every chicken, every vegetable, every variety of fruit and fills her basket with fresh produce each day, walking it to the kitchen to be expertly worked into the restaurant’s seasonal daily menu. 

Talk about paddock to plate. 

“Pat knows everything there is to know about growing things,” Margan says. 

“She has worked on the land her entire life and is always happy to have a chat to anyone who wanders up the garden path to see her. 

“Pat identifies as a proud Wanaruah woman and is firmly and spiritually connected to the Broke Valley. She spent a happy childhood playing on the riverbanks and pastures of this very property. She now resides in town but loves her role with us as she still gets to connect with the land of her childhood and her ancestry.” 

Margan names other personal and professional inspirations – restaurateurs Sally Molines, Megan Rhoades-Brown, Suzie Vincent and Janet Wright. 

“They are the curators of a dining experience which includes warm, intuitive service and ambiance. Astrid McCormack of Fleet Dining NSW also nails this brief. I am inspired by creativity, passion, attention to detail and originality, regardless of the gender. 

“I am also inspired by some of the pioneering women of the cooking world who use produce as the cornerstone of what they do. Alice Waters has been championing local produce and sustainability at her restaurant Chez Panisse, California, since the 1970s. 

“Danielle Alvarez of Fred’s in Sydney is one of Australia’s hottest young chefs and a Chez Panisse alumni. Pioneer food writer Elizabeth David, Marcella Hazan and Christine Manfield are all women I respect as they cook from the heart.

“Both the wine and food industries have so many amazing women at the top of their game getting recognition for their work. Hunter Valley winemaker Sarah Crowe was last year’s Winemaker of the Year and Samantha Connew was Sydney Wine Show’s first female chair.  The Hunter also boasts awarded winemakers in Liz Jackson, Gwyn Olsen, Kate Sturgess and more. Restaurants have more women than ever joining their teams in the kitchen, on the floor and in key sommelier roles. 

“We try to offer our team at Margan flexibility as well.”

Take, for example, Melinda Beswick. She was Margan’s accomplished restaurant manager for many years and is now resident sommelier and cellar door manager. 

Margan herself is a role model and mentor to others these days and it is a role she enjoys. Her business is a leader in the field of environmental stewardship and continues to strive to reduce its carbon footprint. She follows a detailed Environmental Management Plan with accreditation benchmarks in line with international best practice. It’s all about looking after the land so that it will be productive for future generations. 

She is also vice chair of Hunter Culinary Association and a founding board member of the Sydney-based Women of Hospitality, both of which offer structured mentoring and support. In its own words, the board “is made up of pioneering women whose aim is to create a voice for women in the hospitality industry and to inspire females to enjoy a successful and rewarding career”.

“At Margan we have female team leaders across winemaking, the restaurant and cellar door, as well as two fantastic female chefs in the kitchen, a female sommelier and several more across the business,” she explains.

“Andrew and I started our wine business completely from scratch. Over the years we have built it to where it is today and it now employs about 25 staff. We have worked every aspect of the business, both on the tools as well as driving it from above. We both now oversee all operations however we have a really senior team at the moment who share our vision and handle all operational details so if we went AWOL for a few weeks, the place would run seamlessly. 

“After two decades that is a great position to be in.”

Her son Ollie was recently named in the Drinks World Magazine Top 25 Australian bar influencers and runs two top-notch venues in Adelaide: cocktail bar Maybe Mae and upmarket grill Bread & Bone. He is about to open another small bar in the city called West. 

As for daughter Alessa: “I want to say to her don’t get into hospitality, the hours are terrible, but it is in her DNA. She is very good at it and already she is headed down that pathway. She is in Sydney at university but works part-time at the two-hatted Monopole at Potts Point. So it seems to be too late for her to listen to her mother’s advice [laughs].”

So, traditional gender lines in the hospitality and wine industries are blurring. Creativity and innovation continues to be celebrated. But improvements can still be made, Margan says. 

“The hospitality industry is infamous for its short retention of staff and burn-out of its workers. It will now need to show creativity and innovation for its people if it wishes to be sustainable on the HR front. Job sharing without loss of seniority would lead to more females staying in the industry for longer. 

“Kitchens have also chilled out. A lot. Chefs have worked out they don’t need to shout, rant and intimidate anymore and this is a good thing. Calmer, kinder work environments will help retention rates of hospitality staff. 

“In our own business I love to empower our team and challenge them to push forward their careers by offering training, development opportunities or simply support by saying: ‘You’ve got this’.”

This story Meet Hunter Valley hospitality’s leading lady first appeared on Newcastle Herald.