The Argus XXV

Paul West

Before he came to fame as the star of River Cottage Australia, Paul West was just another kid in town.

Words Victoria Carey.

Television presenter and chef Paul West’s son Otto likes to have a chat. “When we were living in Melbourne a few years ago, we would get on a tram and he would say: “G’day mate” at the top of his voice to the driver, then spend the next 15 minutes babbling away to anyone in earshot. A lot of those city people just didn’t know how to take him and would just keep their headphones on and look away,” explains Paul.

It was a far cry from what the former River Cottage Australia host himself experienced as a little boy behind the counter of his parent’s business, the Murrurundi Trading Post. “I had some great conversations,” the 39-year-old remembers fondly. “Everyone was happy to have a yarn with me. I was lucky, I’d sit there and say g’day and people would say g’day back!”

Those tram rides with Otto made something crystal clear to Paul – he wanted his two boys to grow up like he did. “That’s when it really galvanised my belief that I want my kids to grow up in the country. I thought blow this, I want people to talk to my kids, to know them and to watch them grow as a part of the community.”

So, in 2019, the family packed their bags and moved back to Bermagui on the NSW South Coast – an area they were already familiar with after four series of filming River Cottage on a small farm a 30 minutes’ drive away in the rolling green hills of Central Tilba. Otto was six and his younger brother Bowie was four.

“They know the butcher, the baker and if we had a candlestick maker, they’d have some sort of in joke on the go with them too. We walk to footy, we walk to nippers and our gate is always open and swinging with their friends coming and going,” he says.

This free and easy life mirrors their dad’s childhood. John and Cathy West moved from Muswellbrook to Murrurundi just after Paul was born in 1984 in a search of a quieter life. John’s dad Harry, a returned WWII serviceman, had been the town’s station master decades before so the Wests already felt some connection to the Upper Hunter Valley town and decided to establish a home there. They bought a business called Bella Furs and Firearms, renamed it the Murrurundi Trading Post, and opened the doors.

The customers who soon walked through those doors made a lasting impression on their young son. “We had people from the Packers and the Ellerston community to the guys living in lean-to sheds up on the mountain that came down for reloading gear. You had the full gamut of the socio-economic playing field coming in and everyone was treated the same,” says Paul.

With Murrurundi’s population only nudging 900 during the 1980s, the Wests felt confident to give Paul and his younger sister Nicola plenty of freedom. “It was a small town and everyone looked out for you,” he says.

At first the family of five – Paul also has a brother Simon who is 14 years older – lived in the A-frame house next door to the Trading Post before moving out to a block on the Pages River Road. Motorbikes, bush cubbies and dogs moved centre stage in this paradise that was straight from the pages of a Boy’s Own Annual.

“I remember the frosty mornings, the electric heat of the summer and the sound of coal trains coming down the mountain,” he recalls. 

Paul, who today is a breakfast radio presenter on ABC South East NSW, believes his rural upbringing was crucial to the success he was to later enjoy. Perhaps it gave him the confidence that led to a last-minute application for the role of hosting River Cottage Australia – 1300 people also applied for the job. (Not everyone approved of the choice, one viewer complained about his over-the-top ocker accent: “They said no one in this country talks like this. And I thought, well no, where I grew up this is how everyone talks!”)

Why did life in Murrurundi have such an influence? “I’ve thought about it often, and what exactly it was that had such a lasting impact on me as opposed to my friends that were raised in the city. Firstly, as a kid growing up in a little country town, you learn how to talk to people, not just your family and friends, but everyone, young and old, rich and poor and everyone in between,” he says.

But the art of conversation wasn’t the only thing – learning how to resolve conflict was a big one for Paul. “If you have a problem with someone, there’s no escaping, chances are you’ll see them every day for years, so you had better nip it in the bud,” he explains.

Most country kids need to leave home as soon as they finish school – either to go to university or for work. Paul left his much-loved home just before he turned 18, a move that forced him to quickly become independent.

“There was no living with mum and dad while I saved for a house deposit or any of that stuff. I was paying rent on my 18th birthday. It taught me that if you want to do something, you better get off your arse and make it happen yourself, you can’t wait for the world to come to you.”

These are not empty words – just take a look at his CV. From an apprenticeship at Melbourne’s iconic Vue de Monde to scrubbing Navy boats in Sydney Harbour, Paul isn’t one to sit around. He even did a stint on a friend’s oyster farm during COVID.

After River Cottage finished in 2016, Paul and his partner Alicia Cordia tried city life for a couple of years, before they decided to return, just ahead of one of the biggest population shifts to regional Australia ” nearly 900,000 by December 2022 ” we have seen.

What does this boy from the bush think about this move to the country? “With my glass half full hat on, I see a renaissance of the rejuvenation of country towns, with the digital economy allowing people to live and work from wherever they please. Raising families in the country and helping to bring vibrancy and diversity to the communities.” 

Later, I ask him over an email to tell me about some of the locals that he knew as a kid, and a list of names quickly lands in my inbox: and one thing is noticeable, not many individuals make the list, it’s all about families.

The Randos, the Wilsons, the Taylors, the Coopers, the Browns, the Jablonkas, the Atkinsons, the Dykes, the McPhillips, the Creightons, the Burrastons, the Days, the Mathesons, the Watchtels, the McDuies, the Nortons, Hawko, Fred and Howard Lane, Phil Ledgerwood, Fatty Seckold, Brian McGee… 

“So many great people. I’m sure that I’ve missed a stack, so I’m sorry if you’re reading this and I missed you,” he says. “It’s got me all sentimental just thinking about all those people. That’s the beauty about growing up in a small town, there are so many people that are a part of your life.”

And yes, to any River Cottage Australia fans reading this, Paul’s faithful collie Digger is never too far away from his side and enjoying lazing around in the garden.

“Although Bermagui is now well and truly home now, Murrurundi will always hold a very dear place in my heart. It shaped me into the person that I am today and I’m grateful for that,” Paul says.

For a recipe from Paul’s cookbook, Homegrown, see the bottom of this story.

Paul’s On the Road to Murrurundi Address Book

“Really, I just like to pop into all my old secret spots in the bush, the places where I would ponder my young life, kiss girls or sneak in a stolen cigarette,” he says. Here a few of Paul’s favourite places plus his hot tips for Tamworth after spending some time there while working as an ABC presenter during the last Country Music Festival:

Campgrounds Coffee

Opening at 6am every day of the week, this cafe was Paul’s place to visit for his regular caffeine fix while presenting for the ABC during the last Tamworth Country Music Festival.

37 Dowe Street, Tamworth, NSW. 0468 957 896.

The Welder’s Dog

Launched in Armidale in 2014, The Welder’s Dog source their barley from a local grower. Now with three sites – the Brew Bar in Armidale, Inverell and Tamworth – this craft brewery is gaining a following. The Tamworth bar is in an old drive through rural produce store. 

37 Dowe Street, Tamworth, NSW. (02) 6766 1262 or 0417 731 035.


The Tamworth

This Art Deco hotel across the road from the train station has a great selection of craft beers on tap.

147 Marius Street, Tamworth, NSW. (02) 6766 2923.


Michael Reid Murrurundi

“It’s all too rare that I get back to Murrurundi these days. When I do though, I always stop in at the Michael Reid Gallery for a coffee and some cake with my old man and the ladies from his yoga class.”

Cnr Boyd and Mayne Street, Murrurundi, NSW. (02) 6546 6767.


The Murrurundi Collective  

Amanda Riordan is doing an amazing job at building a local food community in Murrurundi, her vision and tenacity are inspiring.

41 Mayne Street, Murrurundi, NSW. 0428 414 256. 


Murrurundi Golf Course and Country Club

“When I wasn’t at school, I’d love to play a round on the best golf course in Australia “even as a child, I would play the course by myself, third hole, par 3 was my favourite,” Paul says.

Paradise Park Road, Murrurundi, NSW. (02) 6545 0386

Recipe and photographs from Homegrown: A year of growing, cooking and eating by Paul West (Plum, RRP $44.99).

Photography Chris Middleton and David Rogers.

Victoria Carey

"I also grew up listening to some great country characters like Paul did," says our editorial director. "We had a lot in common. I used to disappear all day riding my horse in the bush - I feel so lucky to have had the freedom he talks about when I was growing up."

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