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Byron Shire
July 20, 2024

Chefs at 20 paces

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Story by Vivienne Pearson


It’s a good thing that, despite living just around the corner from each other as kids, chefs Gareth Sampson and John Westcott didn’t meet until they were adults. ‘If we’d met in high school, we would never have been friends,’ says Gareth, referring to the fact that while John was a public school boy, Gareth was at Toowoomba Grammar, meaning there would have been automatic rivalry between them.

These days, the two are not only great friends but they work together and live together. They are the chefs at the Ocean Shores Tavern Kitchen, having taken over six months ago, along with Gareth’s wife Jill, who is also a mean (as in good, not nasty) cook.

The potential rivalry of their youth now has a chance to come to the fore at the ‘Battle of the Chefs’ dinner this coming Monday night. Diners will be the judges – each tasting and scoring eight dishes (each chef prepares four half-portion serves) to determine a winner.

The scoring will be blind (diners won’t know which chef cooked each dish) so the competition is real. But it is also friendly. ‘We’re working out our dishes separately but we’ll help each other plate up,’ says Gareth. One aim is to showcase local seafood, which they think is underrated, so the three savoury dishes will feature prawns, scallops and fish.

Other aims are to have some fun, challenge themselves and showcase their skills. Both have worked in top restaurants since meeting in the hospitality scene in Toowoomba as young adults. Gareth has worked at both Byron at Byron and Rae’s. John, also known as ‘Mop’, worked locally at Table View and, before that, at a 5-star resort at Airlie Beach.

Their regular menu demonstrates a mix of this cooking skill and their down-to-earth irreverence – with subheadings like ‘Rabbit Food’ (for the salads – ‘the roasted pear salad is amazing,’ says John) and ‘Things Squashed Between Bread’.

The mains and specials are where the finer side of life is shown. ‘Some regulars, many of who eat here twice a week or more, just walk in and order the special without even thinking – they trust that it will be good,’ says Gareth.

The friendliness extends to the wider team at The Tavern. ‘We run the kitchen separately but we don’t have a different name,’ says Gareth adding: ‘We all get along so well.’ Maybe this is not surprising given that his (and Jill’s) decision to take on the kitchen started with Gareth, ‘having a beer at the bar and chatting to Adzy’ (Adam Berger, one of The Tavern owners).

You can help stir up the rivalry by being one of the limited numbers of diner-judges at the Battle – Monday 7 November 6.15pm. Bookings at the Tavern Bar or on 6680 3222. Ocean Shores Tavern is located in the Ocean Shores Shopping Centre, Rajah Road. Facebook: /OceanShoresTavern.

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