An Insider’s Guide to Canberra with Chef and Restaurateur Ben Willis

An Insider’s Guide to Canberra with Chef and Restaurateur Ben Willis

In addition to Australia’s rural regions, the country’s
contemporary food scene is being shaped not only by big-hitters
such as Sydney
and Melbourne,
but also its lesser-known urban hubs. We’ve teamed up with food and
drink insiders in the emerging food cities of Brisbane, Canberra
and Perth to take your taste buds even farther off the beaten

Whether it’s cooking up a storm in elite private members’ clubs
in London,
making dicing a fine art in Canada’s gourmet restaurants or helming
the kitchen in the Sydney Opera House, chef and restaurateur Ben
Willis has done it all. Finally landing back in his hometown of
Canberra in the south east of the country, Willis saw an
opportunity to inject new life into a second-hand restaurant in the
city centre.

Just over 10 years later, Ben’s two restaurants, Aubergine and Temporada, take centre stage in
Canberra’s culinary line-up. Dining at either is a sensory delight
not limited to taste; Willis also has a passion for interior
design, believing that dining out should be a multi-sensory
experience. Letting us in on ice-cream wizardry and the city’s best
drinking dens, he spills the beans on the ins and outs of the
Australian capital’s culinary scene.

You’ve spent a lot of time abroad. Where was your favourite
place to live and work?

My original move from Canberra was for my first serious kitchen
job at Bennelong in the Sydney Opera House. After
three years I decided I wanted to explore culinary territory
abroad. I spent over five years overseas in total, working
everywhere from London to
to Canada. I loved London but the hours were long and
hard – I thrived on them for a while, but eventually it was time to
enjoy some travel around Europe and Canada, where it was more about
the experience and less about the cooking.

Why did you choose to return to Canberra?

I really didn’t intend to return permanently to Canberra, but my
wife was offered a job here so we moved back. I worked at a few
restaurants around town before the opportunity to buy Aubergine
arose. By this stage, I knew the Canberra market pretty well and
was excited to take on my own place and be part of the city’s
blossoming restaurant scene – it was just at the beginning of a
really positive change in its food culture.

How would you describe your culinary style?

I’m into the seasonality of ingredients and utilising local
produce – I have been since I worked at Chez
in London back in 2005. Its team would never use a tomato
or asparagus out of season, instead celebrating them only at their
peak. Much of Australia doesn’t really have distinct seasons, so I
search for interesting ingredients and then try to do them justice
by not messing with them too much. It’s become a cliché, but this
respectful approach makes sense in so many ways. It’s sometimes
hard to keep the purity of a delicate ingredient because there are
many diners that want you to give them bold flavours – that’s where
Temporada comes in. We have the same philosophy regarding
ingredients, but cook them over a wood grill to ramp up the

Do you think the city has been underestimated in the past? How
is the reality different?

So many people trash talk Canberra, which is difficult when you
know the reality is so different. In the past Canberra was
definitely lacking in some ways; there were lots of galleries and
museums, but no decent gastronomy or nightlife to suit different
occasions, moods or demographics – most of the bars and nightlife
were geared towards university students. In the last 10 years or
so, Canberra has really grown up. Now you can enjoy world-class
attractions including the National Gallery of Australia, the
National Arboretum Canberra, Parliament House and Floriade before
exploring a plethora of restaurants and bars. It’s one thing to
have a great cultural scene, but you also need diverse dining
options to complement these experiences.

Ben’s Guide to Canberra

STAY: East Hotel or Hotel Realm are design-driven
hotels in a part of town close to shops, restaurants and some of
the city’s main attractions. I’d suggest borrowing a bike from
either and cycling through the nearby Kingston Foreshore precinct
to the wetlands, earning yourself a beer at Capital Brewing Co.

EAT: Anything at Frugii
Dessert Laboratory
in Braddon; owner John Marshall is
Canberra’s ice-cream wizard. For dinner, try the Asian bolognese at
XO in Narrabundah, the stracciatella and bottarga at
Rebel Rebel in Acton, or the chicken at
Pilot in Ainslie. Kyo
Coffee Project
also does great coffee and a fresh, healthy

DO: Brindabella National Park or Tidbinbilla
Nature Reserve are great places to enjoy a picnic. I often go
mountain biking in the Stromlo Forest Park – there’s an observatory
at the top of Mount Stromlo where you can see the burnt-out shell
of the original observatory, which was devastated by the 2003 bush

SHOP: Take a walk down Lonsdale Street in
Braddon and pop into any of the stores that will no doubt take your
fancy. For food, stop by the Capital Region Farmers Market at the EPIC on Saturday
mornings for local, organic product and street-food stalls, or the
Fyshwick Fresh Food Markets from Thursday to

or Molly. There’s not much dancing, but both places have
an infectious vibe and delectable drinks.

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