The Book of James Viles
With the world beating a path to Park Hyatt on Sydney Harbour to experience his food, James Viles is rewriting the rules of fine dining.
It’s a typically gorgeous late summer’s day in Sydney when Selector arrives to capture James Viles in his element. The setting couldn’t be more breath-taking – Dining by James Viles perhaps offers the best view from any restaurant table anywhere in the world, looking right across the waters of Sydney’s famous harbour towards its iconic Opera House. As an office, you could do a lot worse.
Today however, a year since first opening, temporary walls are in place, concealing the next evolution of the former Dining Room of Park Hyatt Sydney. Forget the spectacular views – what we want to know, however, is just what’s going on behind those walls?
James Viles' has an anti-fine dining style.
“I think the restaurant’s going to see something exciting during the year, but I can’t tell you what yet,” says James, giving everything yet nothing away. In conversation, he is quiet, considered, thoughtful. He’s just returned to Sydney from west of Bourke where he’s been mustering goats. It’s something he’s done for years now, heading out to connect with the land, the farmers and the produce of a region.
“I’ve always done it,” he says. “I get a lot out of it. For me it kind of joins the dots a little, to be inspired by what I’m about to do by people on the land doing what they do every day.”
It’s a world away from the gleaming towers of Middle East, where he cooked for a time for various hotel chains. It was in those rarefied heights that the realisation of what he really wanted to do with food was born – something far more down to earth.
RETURN TO ROOTS
“I was 50 floors up in the Arabian sky and opening these boxes of food that were coming from wherever around the world – I didn’t know where they were coming from, I just knew that it was food,” he says of his time with Aman Resorts and Orient Express. “Then I’d cook and sell it. I thought, ‘one day it would be nice to do a restaurant or eatery where I knew where the food had come from.’”
From this epiphany was born Biota Dining. Located in Bowral, Viles founded it in 2011 after his return to Australia. With a chef ’s hat under his belt from a stint at The Schoolhouse and a clear-eyed vision of a menu devised around seasonal produce, the venture attracted rave reviews, cementing Viles’ place in the Australian hospitality scene as a chef prepared to pour everything into his passion for connection – to the land, to the soils, to the people who would come dine – and to his own home turf of the Southern Highlands, New South Wales.
The hint as to his vision was in the name – biota, referring to the signature flora and fauna ecosphere of a specific region – and when the restaurant folded in 2020 after 10 years due to a double-whammy of Covid lockdowns and searing bushfires decimating the local supply, so too did James’ world. “It broke me, and it does to this day,” he says. “You have to make hard decisions in life and that was one of them.”
James Viles, with Head Chef Brian O'Flaherty – an instrumental player in bringing Dining by James Viles' sustainably-sourced menu to life.
Getting back on his feet after such a left-right knockdown was hard. When asked what he wanted to do following its closure, he pauses. “I’ll be candid about it,” he says. “I wasn’t sure. Family was my first priority, and I needed to really make sure I was still an anchor and still a support for my family. I wasn’t the 28-year-old that started Biota with a young baby, suddenly I was a 42-year-old with a young family and needed to put them first.”
Then, Park Hyatt Sydney and its General Manager Samuel Dabinett came knocking. After two or three years of “not floating, but looking for something with meaning,” a genuine ‘sliding door’ moment presented itself – a chance to breathe new life into a Sydney icon, and to introduce Viles’ sustainable ethos to the highest of high-end dining.
NO WALK IN THE PARK
The history of hotel-and-chef partnerships in Australia is a potted one. The realities of bringing a chef ’s particular vision into sync with the realities of a top-down superstructure focused on the logistics of accommodation make such alignments a challenging proposition in the rough-and-tumble, fickle world of Australian hospitality.
Park Hyatt Sydney General Manager Samuel Dabinett, however, was set on doing things a little differently. The South Australian-born Dabinett brought his 15 years’ experience with Park Hyatt Asia to the table and revealed himself an earnest listener to Viles’ talk of provenance and whole-of-business sustainability.
“I’ve been here 12 months now and I’ve never felt so supported in a role,” says Viles, who had been approached by Park Hyatt Sydney with the promise of revitalising this icon of the city’s restaurant scene. To other ears, Viles’ talk of minimal-waste, locally supplied, sustainability-oriented cuisine might have proven simply too much to contend with.
James Viles works closely with Park Hyatt Sydney General Manager, Samuel Dabinett.
Dining by James Viles' white choc sponge with grape granita and verjus sorbet.
Not for Dabinett, though. “The position here at Park Hyatt Sydney came up, I met Samuel and we got talking about provenance,” says Viles. “We got talking about food and we got talking about these things – I don’t mind saying it, I was highly sceptical – but I just felt that they were a progressive-minded bunch, and people who were truly about hospitality, because hospitality is probably one of the last areas we can actually touch somebody’s heart without a computer… I just felt this could work, and it has.”
Viles acknowledges that, for many places, establishing that kind of connection just isn’t a priority. “There are people in the hotels that don’t want to listen – and Sydney is full of hotels like this – and that’s a shame. You drive your product and business model on the cheapest price and put everything out to tender, nothing else matters but what people are paying for something, the only thing that will suffer is the product. And then the people suffer. And to them I say ‘more fool you’, because you’ve got it the wrong way around.”
For Dabinett, Viles’ holistic vision is a boon for Park Hyatt Sydney, a true differentiator that has paid and is paying dividends. “James’ food is unfiltered and authentically Australian, and undoubtedly first-class,” he says. “The team is motivated to deliver thoughtful Australian cuisine that continues to let our regional and coastal ingredients shine.”
The team in question is a constellation of Sydney’s finest, foremost amongst them Head Chef Brian O’Flaherty. Instrumental in bringing Viles’ vision of considered, sustainable dining to the table, the former Senior Sous at the three-hatted Quay Restaurant is first amongst equals when it comes to the restaurant’s dynamic menu, working closely with Viles to ensure that the restaurant delivers on its founding tenets with each and every dish.
Dining by James Viles' beef tartare with black garlic mayo and salt and vinegar chips.
Dining by James Viles' iced bush tea (top), ocean trout pastrami with ranch and seed cake (left), and school prawn katsu, bonito mayo and pickled turnip (right).
As part of its ethos, Dining by James Viles’ menu takes full advantage of the enviable position the restaurant occupies on the shore of Sydney Harbour. It revolves around a hyper-local supply chain, with wild-caught seafood taking prominence.
“As I’m talking to you, I’m watching the waters lap up against the side of the restaurant windows,” he says. “So I wanted to have a real focus on seafood, because I never had that in my life.”
Viles considers it as an extension of the same philosophy as at Biota Dining, just with different ingredients. “I wouldn’t say it’s fine dining, if anything it’s anti-fine dining; we’re going down the road of thoughtful dining. Still great ingredients, still cooked with the same love and passion – if not more – just not selfishly plated up in a dead style format. You can sit down and share a whole mud crab here, or you can share a whole Murray cod.”
I wouldn't say its fine dining. If anything, I'd say it's anti-fine dining.
From the beehive on the hotel rooftop that supplies the honey for the restaurant to the native iced bush teas and Viles’ network of ‘collaborators’ – not suppliers, but intrinsic partners in his culinary expedition – Dining by James Viles has not only reasserted the venue’s pre-eminence as a hotel restaurant, but has restored that vital element of dining that so often seems an afterthought elsewhere: communion.