a hidden gem
As you wind your way through the eucalypt-lined streets of the historic mining village of Mount Kembla, you’ll stumble across a humble, heritage-listed cottage. Nestled under the towering escarpment, Ruby’s Mount Kembla is a much-loved, fine-dining restaurant, that has stood proudly in the area since the 1800s. Originally the village store and post office, which serviced a thriving community of coal miners and their families, the property – named after 1920s postmistress Ruby Moore – now resides in the capable hands of acclaimed local chef, Scott Woods.
Serving up an impressive five or seven-course degustation menu from Friday to Sunday, which features star performers like confit petuna ocean trout, braised duck leg and white chocolate ricotta cheesecake, Scott’s creatively crafted cuisine is innovative, comforting and presented with poise and precision.
With three private dining rooms (which you can book at no extra cost), a marquee that boasts the bush as a backdrop and plays host to weddings and functions, and a dining room that holds 50 at capacity, Ruby’s Mount Kembla caters to events big and small. They were recently awarded the Best Wedding Venue Historic for the third-year running at the llawarra Bride’s Choice Awards, and were extended the great honour of an Australian Good Food Guide’s Chef’s Hat earlier this year.
When you step into the cottage, complete with original floorboards, two open fireplaces, and memorabilia of a time gone by scattered throughout, you’re immediately struck by the quaint, old-world cosiness of the place. This is the charm of Ruby’s – a spot with much history and much heart off the well-worn track, where you can easily spend hours sampling, sipping, tasting without worry. The menu is designed to be a culinary experience. As Scott says, “Come and let us look after you.”
We caught up with Scott to talk all things food, history… and ghosts!
Where did your career begin?
It actually started here at Ruby’s in 1999, when I was 17. I grew up just down the road in Cordeaux Heights, and somehow, I always knew I wanted to be a chef. I approached Ruby’s and asked whether I could do some dishwashing work free of charge in the school holidays. They agreed, and that eventually turned into an apprenticeship. I did my first three years of my apprenticeship here, and then I went to Sydney and did my fourth year at Aria. After that, I came back to the Gong, before taking off overseas to work in London for a few years at a couple of Michelin-starred places. From there, I went straight to Canada and worked at the well-known, acclaimed Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler. I came home, thinking I’d catch up with family and friends and probably take off somewhere again, but ended up working back at Ruby’s. I was offered the head chef job and then the old owners decided to sell and move on… so I bought it. That was 10 years ago now.
You worked at Aria under Matt Moran, how was that experience?
It was an eye-opener coming from a two-person kitchen at Ruby’s to go into a 25-brigade kitchen. But it was a great and valuable experience.
Now it’s just you and an apprentice at Ruby’s most nights. After working in such big kitchens overseas, what is that like?
I enjoy it, because I know exactly what’s going out to every diner. I’m in charge of everything and I get to prepare every course. When you’re in a big kitchen, you often get stuck on just one station and that’s all you do all night. It’s also great for my apprentice as he’s learning every element that goes on in a professional kitchen.
When you bought Ruby’s did you make changes?
We made the food more refined. Previously, it was a bit more rustic – hence the old business name, Ruby’s Country-style Cuisine. I changed it to Ruby’s Mount Kembla, so we weren’t giving the impression that it was rustic dining. Not that there’s anything wrong with that type of cooking, it just wasn’t the food I wanted to serve.
How do you create the menu?
We offer a five or seven-course tasting menu to show people what we can do. I want the dining experience here to be easy and comforting. Rather than having a three-course meal, let’s stretch it over seven and get a little bit of everything… that’s the way I like to eat when I go out. It’s more of an evolving menu – I don’t change every dish seasonally, but I’ll change a little bit here and a little bit there. Elements of the dish and ingredients we use are constantly being updated.
Where do you source your produce from?
Most of it I source locally – I try to as much as I can. It’s definitely important to me to support local growers and producers, so I use a couple of meat suppliers from the Southern Highlands, organic vegetables from Dapto Farm, and I’ve started to use Green Connect in Warrawong. They’ve got some incredible, organic free-range pork as well as great produce.
Tell us about the history of the building?
It was built in 1890 and used to be the old post office and general store. The main dining room was the storefront and then the private dining rooms were bedrooms. Parts of the property have been carefully restored, but it’s beautiful the way it is. Ruby was the old postmistress here – she was also the captain of the Mount Kembla cricket team. She was a bit of a gun cricket player, apparently.
We hear Ruby is still floating around…
Could be, could be… I’ve actually seen her a couple of times. She’s pretty friendly. It’s normally late at night, and sometimes weird things will happen like glasses will fall off the shelf for no reason.
What are the plans for the future of Ruby’s?
To continue to grow and show people what we can do. Part of Ruby’s charm is that it’s a little bit out of the way; a little bit hidden. But at the same time, that makes it harder for us too because we’re out of town. We have a really good base of regular clientele that I’m very appreciative of. And word-of-mouth sees lots of locals coming in to try our food.
What’s your favourite thing to cook?
I’ve been getting into a lot of American barbecue. Briskets. It’s not really the style of food we serve here, although I have had brisket on the menu before, but it was cooked in a waterbath for 24 hours. One of my favourite items on the menu at the moment is a braised oxtail dish in beef jus and butter, rolled into a cylinder, and then cut at the cross-section and pan-fried in seasoned flour.
What has been the most out-there dietary requirement you’ve received from a customer?
We cater to all requirements, but we had someone who was a coeliac, couldn’t eat onion, garlic and on top of that, they were vegan. That made my night interesting.
Ruby’s was awarded an Australian Good Food Guide Chef’s Hat this year…
I’m very happy with that – it’s always good to receive recognition. I love being a chef; you have to love it. When I was young, the reason I wanted to become a chef was because I thought it would be cool to ride my mountain bike all day long and then work at night. And then I started working and realised that was not the reality at all. I thought, 'Oh hang on, what’s all this prep stuff. I didn’t sign up for the prep.' We make everything in-house, even the wedding cakes, so I spend most of my days preparing for dinners, weddings, any special events we host. But I really do love being a chef – and to receive an accolade like that just makes it all the more worthwhile.
So do you still get some time to ride your mountain bike… [Laughs] It’s a bit harder now, but as much as I can.
Images Stefan Posthuma & Tess McIntosh