When it comes to fine dining only one Wollongong restaurant has the envious record Caveau enjoys with the Good Food Guide.
Over the years the popular eatery has picked up 14 chef hat awards.
It has earned a hat every year since the Caveau story began back in 2004, when the restaurant was established by Peter and Nicola Sheppard.
The record continued when the eatery changed hands two-and-a-half years ago.
New owners Tom Chiumento and Simon Evans have taken Caveau's reputation for being the city's most awarded restaurant one step further, picking up two glasses two years in a row in the Australian Wine List of the Year Awards.
The maximum any establishment can win in one year is three, a feat usually only achieved by large capital-city eateries.
But Mr Evans is not ruling out the chance of securing that rare achievement for Wollongong.
"I am hoping to push for three glasses in the next couple of years," he said.
"I think that is achievable. It doesn't have to be a big wine list - it has to be concise and well thought out".
Mr Evans said the Wollongong dining scene has come a long way in recent years.
It is not only fine dining restaurants providing customers the opportunity to get a really good drop of wine; you can also find them at many of the small bars and eateries popping up around the city.
Mr Evans and Mr Chiumento frequent many of those themselves after a night in the kitchen at Caveau.
They want to get the message out further afield that Wollongong is a good place to come to eat and drink.
"The standard is really high down here," Mr Evans said.
He and Mr Chiumento changed both the wine list and the menu when they took over the restaurant, but were determined to keep Caveau's award-winning reputation flowing.
"We had 150 wines when we took over. We slimmed that down to 100. Now we are back up to 125 and we are going to build on that again," Mr Evans said.
"Our wine list has a lot of scope. There is a lot of variety there. We are quite focused on what we do. We just use Australian wines and we particularly focus on NSW wines. About 40 per cent of our wine is from NSW and we have some from all the regions.
"You won't see wines from the South Coast, Southern Highlands and places like Tumbarumba on too many lists but we really want to champion those wines. We think there is some really good quality coming out of those regions.
"So if you come here you will definitely be able to taste local wine, local beer and local spirits as well. We have some guys doing really cool stuff here in Wollongong".
Caveau also stocks many of what Mr Evans describes as the great classic wines from around Australia. Friday night's Tyrrells wine dinner and July's Yarra Yering wine dinner showcased some of that.
Mr Evans said Caveau chooses wine styles to match its award-winning food as it continually evolves.
But in doing so Mr Chiumento said maintaining the restaurants standard was very important and being self critical was a key.
"When Simon and I took over we still wanted to be the best restaurant in Wollongong, no matter what. The approach that we take is also constantly re-evaluating and saying to ourselves "is this the best that we can do". We want to be the best we can possibly be no matter what that takes".
The two chefs set the bar very high for themselves because they want to cook with the best products and prepare it in a way that when people leave at the end of the night they can say "that is the best dinner I have ever had".
The menu has continued to evolve at Caveau since day one. When it first opened it was classic French, then ventured into an Australian style before becoming more modern European.
"When Tom and I took over we wanted to use local produce in a modern Australian style," Mr Evans said.
"Then from there we found this love for native and Indigenous produce and ingredients and the stories that come with them. We decided to really showcase them over the last two years. Our aim and our goal has been to champion true modern Australian cuisine".
Mr Chiumento said it was an enjoyable challenge to cook with ingredients they have never cooked with before.
"There is not really anything to read about it anywhere. Or anyone to learn from," he said.
"So from a chefs perspective we are still learning. Which is really exciting. We are not just coming in and doing the same thing. Every day is completely different".
Some of the dishes use ingredients Indigenous Australians have been eating for thousands of years.
"We try and take inspiration from how they were used and we talk to our suppliers and other people about what is the best way to represent that in a restaurant setting," Mr Evans.
"Some of these ingredients haven't been cooked in restaurants before. And no one has matched wines with them before".
Each new dish is trialed rigorously before it goes on the menu. And it won't make menu unless it is of the highest standard and good enough to knock something else off.
Mr Chiumento and Mr Evans enjoy that process and trial dishes with their staff before locking them in. The constant quest to push themselves to improve and do better is what they see as their own recipe for success. And has helped them maintain the same high level of recognition achieved by the previous owners.
For Mr Chiumento and Mr Evans keeping the customer satisfied comes from never being satisfied they have done as well as they can.
So they keep raising the bar and pushing themselves to improve.
"We need constant change and we are rarely completely happy with what we do. We are always pushing ourselves to improve," Mr Evans said.
"We taste a lot of our dishes regularly to make sure they taste as good as they did the first time. And ask ourselves if we can improve on it. Just because it is on the menu and it is a really good dish doesn't mean it can't be improved," Mr Chiumento said.
With Hannah Rathbone joining them in the kitchen Caveau has three full time chefs working throughout the week. Generally they have five to 10 people in the kitchen and a similar number front of house.
"A lot of our success comes down to the staff we have and the time we spend training," Mr Chiumento said.
"Every single one of our team comes in for a free dinner every time we change the menu. It means they can taste every dish and develop that emotional connection to the food. Which means they can talk to customers more knowledgeably about it".
Mr Chiumento and Mr Evans also offer in-house courses in everything from wine to cheese so the team has a wealth of information they can share. But Caveau's success is not just about the training and the team.
"You can't have really good food without really good producers," Mr Chiumento said.
"And the reason we have really good produce is because of the relationships we have built. "Every ingredient we get in has been sourced specifically from a person we have a relationship with and talk to regularly. For example we are one of only three restaurants in Australia that have Magpie Goose on the menu. The only reason we are able to get 15 every week is because of the relationship we have formed with the Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.
"The producers are just as important as anyone else. One of our important producers Something Wild is coming for a collaboration dinner in November".
As an added touch to the native theme is that Caveau makes its own infused oil called Bush Walk. It is designed to smell like walking through the Australian bush.
"You can sit here and eat native Australian food while also feeling like you are in the bush. And all our napkins and our hand-towels get washed with lemon myrtle washing powder," Mr Chiumento said.
A key to the success of the two chefs who took over Caveau two-and-a-half years ago is they pay attention to every detail and always try and give that one per cent more.
Mr Chiumento said the three things he loved most about being a chef and restauranter at Wollongong's most awarded restaurant is he gets to be his own boss, gets to order lots of cheese and gets to go out after working hard to enjoy the city's ever evolving small bar scene and nightlife.
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