Colleen Gibson, the owner of The Fat Hare, Armidale’s newest café, sits down with FOCUS to talk about her long career in the food industry and where it all began.
When did you first discover your love of cooking?
It all started with parents who couldn’t cook, so I took it upon myself to experiment – with a little help, of course. When I was about five years old, my aunt, who was a great cook, would have me standing on her little kitchen stool helping her in the kitchen. The first thing I ever made was an apple crumble, and I remember being so excited when we pulled it out of the oven; I’m sure I probably ended up eating half of it too!
From there we progressed through the basic stuff, making a lot of pastries on the way. She was my first real teacher and taught me all the basic skills I needed. I started working as a chef at The 7C’s Restaurant, originally starting in the take-away section of the fish and chip shop connected to the restaurant. Jenny Creagon was the chef at that restaurant when I started working there and still is to this day! I would start at the fish and chip shop at 9am, and I’d go from there to cooking in the restaurant out the back in the afternoon until 12 at night.
For the past 30 odd years I’ve been associated with Jean Marc Pollat, who is a French à la carte chef and was actually one of the first founding chefs in the Hunter Valley for à la carte. I started working with him at Chez Pok and Peppers Guesthouse; the first day I walked into that kitchen, he was swearing and hollering – and I just stopped in my tracks and thought, “Hang on a second; do I really want to be here?” There was something about him that I really liked behind the swearing, so I started off as a kitchen hand and progressed from there. Years later we worked together at the Mercure Resort in Hunter Valley Gardens.
I’ve been through many restaurants to get the experience of different cuisine and that’s where the love of it all comes from; it’s exciting to learn new stuff!
How long have you been in the industry?
About 35 years now. I’ve done everything from kitchen hand to take-aways to cafés to restaurants to steak house to fine dining. I’ve covered a fair amount across the board. I’m lucky; I like all different styles of cuisine, and I’ve had the opportunity to experience so many.
What brought you to Armidale?
I had a café in Glen Innes at the standing stones called Crofters Cottage, and I got a phone call one day saying this business was available. I had tried to buy this place a few years ago, but just didn’t quite make it in the door back then. This time I decided we would uproot the family and make the move to Armidale and really get stuck in; now here we are.
What do you take into consideration when preparing a menu?
There are a lot of things to consider when preparing a new menu, such as people’s dietary requirements, allergies, individual taste, the area you are located. You wouldn’t have an all seafood menu if you’re out in the bush! We are in a beautiful country area, so you have to think about what people want and you need a mix of different cuisine. With all the farmers here you want bigger, more substantial, home-baked style meals for them. You also have a lot of people who are looking for more upmarket food; Armidale has that eclectic feel about it, which is different to Glen Innes.
I’ve tried to please people from all demographics with my menu; I always make sure to take into consideration vegetarians, vegans, coeliacs etc.
Do you have a certain flair or signature dish that follows you; do you have a favourite dish to cook?
I do have a couple of dishes that seem to follow me and end up on my menus everywhere, because everyone loves them! My corn fritters are a hit, no matter where I am! We also do an Asian prawn salad in summer that we always have on the menu. They are both very simple dishes that everyone seems to love, so they would probably be my signature dishes.
I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite dish; there are too many. I love cooking all sorts of cuisine. I just love cooking!
What are your plans for the future now you’re here?
Once everything is up and running 100% in the day, we plan to open up one night a week. We are working on getting the licensing transferred, so that we can open up the bar.
The goal is to be here for the next five years or so, until it’s time to retire. If I’ve got any energy left, I’d love to open up a B&B back home in Deepwater, so that I can potter around in the garden at a leisurely speed and not be running around in the kitchen.
Right now our focus is on Armidale and this café; we want to ensure we are giving the best service possible and that people are loving the food we make.
Any final words?
I just hope that Armidale and the people of this beautiful rich community embrace what we are trying to do. I promise to give 100% to try and make something special for them. We are also offering catering, so feel free to drop by and chat about your next party or event!