Orange is the new Spain: Meet the chef creating a little slice of España in NSW’s Central Highlands
Spanish chef Rubén López Mesa has carved a slice of his homeland from the NSW Central Highlands with delicious results, as Richard Cornish reports.
Rubén López Mesa has found chef nirvana in a country town 200km west of Sydney.
But the Spanish chef’s current good fortune in the Central Highlands town of Orange was born from a series of disasters, starting with the 2009 the Global Financial Crisis forcing him to migrate from Spain to Australia.
“I was forced to pull down the shutters on my deli, where I was cooking food for family takeaway, for the very last time,” says the 45-year-old chef.
Rubén packed his bags and said goodbye to his family in the postcard perfect town of Pinto, 25km south of Madrid, and followed his wife Kellie back to her hometown of Sydney.
He had cooking skills, but soon realised he needed qualifications to compete in Australia, so he enrolled at Loftus TAFE gaining his Cert III in cooking before completing a Diploma in Hospitality Management.
At the same time, Melbourne’s most famous Spanish chef Frank Camorra was looking for chefs to work in the new Surry Hills outpost of his MoVida restaurant group. Rubén was part of the opening team in 2014.
“Frank was my mentor,” says Rubén, who moved on to find work in Newtown but was unhappy living in the city.
“I wanted to be in the hills, in nature, with cold winters and hot summers like in Spain.”
So Rubén and his wife moved to Orange, a regional centre the same size as his home town of Pinto, with a population of 40,000.
He arrived in Orange as the region was blooming as one of NSW’s richest sources of food and wine.
“There are roosters crowing in the morning and the scent of woodsmoke from the fires in the evening,” says Rubén.
“There’s snow and mushroom hunting in the forest. Just like Spain.”
When Covid forced Rubén out of the café where he had been for working for two years, he went walking in the woods to reimagine his life.
Rubén wanted to cook but did not want the overheads of bricks and mortar or permanent staff. He realised there were enough visitors to Orange to support a private chef.
Two and half years later, A Table of Ten is now a profitable business in which Ruben uses his council registered home kitchen to prepare feasts of up to 20 courses for groups of up to ten.
He serves them in their accommodation or teams up with local wineries to create bespoke events.
“It depends on the group, but I always take my guests on a gastronomic tour of Spain starting in the north with a dish like mussels escabeche from Galicia,” says Ruben. “Then, we head through Cantabria with some anchovies on pan con tomate (tomato bread) and then through Madrid with tapas like we used to have in my favourite bars in Pinto.”
Ruben has teamed with local producers like Hillside Harvest for apples, Ross Hill Wines to pour at the table and artisans such as Peter Gibson from Word of Mouth wines, who also makes ceramics for tableware.
“It is an authentic experience,” he says. “We’ve become connected as a community and guests get a real taste of local food through my Spanish experience”.
“For me, I remain connected with my culinary culture and have time to explore this extremely beautiful part of the world as it changes through the seasons”.
“I now earn a good living and have a great work / life balance.”
Richard Cornish is an award-winning author and journalist who has been writing about Australian food and drink for almost three decades. Richard has also co-authored best-selling books with MoVida’s Frank Camorra and bakery doyen Phillippa Grogan.