NORTHERN EXPOSURE: Bistro Livi
Do you daydream about leaving the city to open a country restaurant? Richard Cornish asks chef Ewen Crawford how he helped build a dining destination in northern NSW.
When Covid hit, Ewen Crawford headed north seeking a warmer life for his young family.
After more than a decade in the busy kitchens of Melbourne’s MoVida Aqui, he had no trouble finding work in Brunswick Heads at Roco Ramen and the famed Mexican cantina La Casita.
Fellow Melbourne chef Danni Wilson (Carlton Wine Room) had already made the move to the Northern Rivers region, and the two started talking about a seasonal, local diner that would tell a story about the produce of the increasingly popular sub-tropical province. They poked around Ocean Shore, Brunswick Heads. “Anywhere north of Byron,” says Ewen dryly.
The two chefs were joined by Danni’s twin sister Nikky, who had managed front of house during Ewen’s 11-year tenure at MoVida.
Their search for a venue led them to Stephen Webb, who owned an art deco building next to Murwillumbah’s 1947 Regent Theatre and had plans to revitalise the precinct.
“Murwillumbah was not on my radar,” says Ewen. “But it is a beautiful old timber town on the banks of the Tweed River that was gutted by fire in the early 20th century and replaced with art deco and late federation architecture.
“It is a rural service centre but has a great arts community and is surrounded by productive farming land and scores of small growers, which suited us.”
The trio decided to offer a menu dictated by available produce and hired Melbourne design studio Flack to fit out the restaurant. They settled on the name Bistro Livi, after Ewen’s Scottish grandfather Livingstone, and moved into the new food and arts precinct.
Bistro Livi opened in January 2022, just weeks before a major flood sent a metre of water through their new restaurant. They had to replace the banquettes, walls, and all the kitchen plant. They worked night and day to get back on track and had the doors open within five weeks.
Today, Livi is a hit – awarded the 2023 New Restaurant of the Year by Sydney’s Good Food Guide. Locals love seeing the produce of the region heroed on the daily menu, and the venue has become a popular destination for diners from Brisbane to Byron Bay. Seafood is big, with dishes like mulloway with whipped cod roe made with house-dried mullet egg sacks. Slimy mackerel could be cured, blow-torched, and sent out with cucumber and a fermented chili dressing.
Ewen and Danni love working with less popular fish, so when flathead cheeks come in the seafood order, they get excited. Both chefs attend different weekly markets, picking the best fruit and veg. “No, it’s not romantic. It’s about economics,” says Ewen. “If I can put beautiful fresh veg on the plate, perhaps with a dressing, and let the flavour do the talking – it actually lowers labour input and reduces food waste.”
Ewen acknowledges that being a small town away from the busy coast, dish prices need to be around $35 for seafood and $40 for his (now) famous charcoal grilled pork cutlet.
“Transport is a killer here too,” says Ewen. “But this place has so much potential. There is a new rail trail going to Casino, new galleries, young families hitting town. Here there is a feeling of hope and potential.”
Australia’s population shift from cities to regional centres shows no sign of slowing, with new figures showing an increase in the number of metro dwellers moving out, and growth in the number of regional residents moving to smaller towns.
The latest Regional Movers Index, a quarterly report by the Regional Australia Institute and Commonwealth Bank, shows net “capital to regional” migration grew 16 per cent on pre-Covid levels.
In Murwillumbah, Ewen can only see opportunity for hospitality professionals looking for a fresh start in the country.
He says the access to “incredible” produce is another major draw card.
“You can create a wonderful work/life balance,” Ewen says. “It’s a wonderful place to live, with access to a great coastline, beautiful rainforests, and a major city only a short drive away.
“We feel it will continue to grow. There definitely seems to be staff shortages here, like elsewhere, but we’ve been extremely lucky. We have a small but very solid team.
“There are always people visiting the town. A great bakery would do very well.”
Any regrets about leaving the city?
“I love Melbourne and loved my time at MoVida,” Ewen says. “And I miss my old stomping ground of Collingwood from time to time. It was just time for a change, really. I have two young daughters and thought they might like to see what it’s like growing up in the bush. I grew up in Albany, WA.”
If other chefs are interested in following you, what advice do you have?
“I’d say… start looking for accommodation. Now.”
Bistro Livi, 1 Brisbane Street, Murwillumbah, www.bistrolivi.com
Richard Cornish is an award-winning author and journalist who has been writing about Australian food and drink for almost three decades, amassing a cult following for his weekly column in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. Richard has also co-authored best-selling books with MoVida’s Frank Camorra and bakery doyen Phillippa Grogan.