Great chefs have to know more than how to cook. They have to get to know their suppliers, too
Who’s that standing behind every great chef? A great supplier. Belatedly, we’re all starting to realise that when a chef bangs on about seasonal, ethical and local produce, it’s all rather meaningless unless they have strong working relationships with the producers.
In the best of these relationships, a certain flexibility is a given; a recognition that ultimately, in the pursuit of perfection on the plate, the real boss is Mother Nature, and what a capricious beast she is.
We found some chefs and suppliers who make these teetering transactions work well and often. Chef David Moyle and pig farmer Ross O’Meara, Hobart and Bruny Island, Tasmania David Moyle of Hobart’s Franklin restaurant and pig farmer Ross O’Meara found each other when Moyle moved to the Apple Isle in 2011.
“Initially, Ross had linked me to a pigeon producer in Broadmarsh when I first came to Tasmania,” says Moyle, “and when I was looking for a pig farmer he was my first choice.”
For Moyle, finding the right producers was part of fulfilling his mission statement. “The most important thing for me when sourcing any meat product is animal ethics, and moving to Tasmania was a decision predominantly based on being able to engage with producers so that I could be part of the entire process, not just receive a commodity at the end.”
Five years on and Moyle and O’Meara are a solid team. Professionally, they have reached the level of being able to anticipate what the other wants and what’s possible, and they work consistently to make it good for both parties and, ultimately, Moyle’s restaurant customers.
O’Meara’s background in professional cooking helps nurture the connection but it’s important, he says, that Moyle understands the quirks of O’Meara’s work. “My background made dealing with Dave’s needs easier, in a way, but you need a chef who understands the product you’re selling. You’re talking about high-end product of limited supply so you really need a chef that is very flexible with their menu.
“Dave understands that he can’t have (my product) on his menu all the time.”
For diners, there’s an added frisson in knowing that dishes such as poached and wood-roasted neck of pork with turnip, yoghurt and lovage, or a hay and ciderbraised pork shoulder with toasted radicchio and garlic buds, are not always available.
For Moyle, the biggest issues are logistics and scale. “Scale because it is unreasonable for me to say I only want to take the neck cut of the animal, requiring the death of 20 animals to provide my weekly needs.”
Moyle says logistics cause headaches when a smallscale product with a defined shelf-life post-mortem has to be processed efficiently, but the pair co-ordinate and collaborate to get it right.
At the end of the day, there is the odd beer shared. “I would consider us mates,” says O’Meara. “If I lived in town and not on an island with young kids, I think we would catch up a bit more. As busy as we both are, we still managed to have a beer just the other week.”
Says Moyle: “We are definitely mates. I have a lot of respect for what he is doing and the tough choices and sacrifices you need to make in order to do something with integrity. Just don’t tell him that.” franklinhobart.com.au; brunyislandfood.com.au Rosa Mitchell, chef and co-owner of Rosa’s Kitchen and Rosa’s Canteen, Melbourne, and Paul Righetti, Real Eggs, Yandoit Rosa Mitchell and her husband, Colin, own a property in Yandoit in Victoria’s northwest and are neighbours with Paul Righetti, a sheep farmer. When she heard Righetti was branching out into eggs, it was an easy decision. Mitchell’s business practices and menu ethos have been built on local, ethical and quality produce, so sourcing genuine free-range eggs was pivotal to her restaurants’ offering. For Righetti it was a good boost to his burgeoning egg business. “Rosa was the first restaurant to support us, followed closely by the Lake House (Daylesford),” he says.
In Mitchell’s opinion, the eggs stand out because “the chickens have a great living environment, the quality is great and they taste like real eggs! I actually drive past the chickens every weekend and see how happy they are”.
The eggs are from Isa Brown chooks (quiet temperament and they lay quality eggs) and Righetti refers to his method of farming as open range, as opposed to free range (the latter is measured by space per bird and can be up to 10,000 to 15,000 birds to the hectare). Righetti’s open-range method and his expanse of land means he has just 10 birds to the hectare. The chickens graze through open pastures and have mobile housing, giving them access to fresh pasture every two days.
Happy chooks laying good eggs often can mean higher cost and Mitchell is fine with that. “We do pay more for the eggs and we incorporate that into our costs. At Rosa’s we have very little waste because we use the whole vegetable or the whole chicken so wastage is at a minimum,” she says.
Righetti sees the issue of cost being addressed through educating the customer. “Once consumers understand how much better a pasture-fed, openrange egg is and how we farm, they are totally on board.” This neighbourly chef-supply relationship has fostered collaborations; Mitchell has cooked for Righetti at Real Eggs’ annual open days at the farm. Mitchell says there’s a great friendship developing. “We have known each other for a while but the eggs have made us get to know each other better,” she says.
“We are both passionate in our beliefs about the environment, quality of products, family and local history. And we don’t mind a little glass of wine.” rosas-kitchen.com; realeggs.com.au
Amanda Hinds and the Grunske family, Bundaberg, Queensland
Amanda Hinds, chef and co-owner of Indulge Cafe in Queensland’s Bundaberg, has been buying her seafood from the Grunske family — owners of restaurant and retail shop Grunske’s by the River — for more than a decade. Hinds and family matriarch Beryl Grunske found each other about 13 years ago through a mutual love of seafood.
It was the Grunskes’ high standards, “backed up with infectious knowledge”, says Hinds, that sparked the conversations and the connection between the two. Their shared curiosity about different, not-too-common fish species kept the connection going.
Hinds hits the locavore point home. “While we’re talking to you, we’re sitting on Beryl’s back veranda and a man is working in the background on the Burnett River about 100m away cooking river prawns for the Grunskes’ shop,” she says. “They are the sweetest most delicious prawns you will ever eat and, after having this kind of seafood, your standard is set very high.” Again, flexibility is key to the relationship’ s success. Hinds loves the ribbon fish the family catches and the baby squid, but they aren’t always available. The menu flexes and bends to accommodate fish that is seasonal and sustainable. “I trust their (the Grunskes’) recommendations and they know what I like,” says Hinds.
Threadfin salmon is another favourite: Hinds is serving it with an avocado mousse and pickled ginger (the avocado and ginger are also locally sourced). Meanwhile, a new dish — smoked cobia and potato cakes with local bottarga — is also proving a hit.
For her part, Grunske admires Hinds’s accommodating approach. “She’s always open to anything new and her natural respect and creativity with the product is wonderful,” Grunske says. The only downside is the unpredictability of the weather and supply.
“Consistency with supply can change and that is part of seasonality,” says Hinds, “but the quality and service are always super reliable.” grunskesbytheriver.com.au; indulgecafe.com.au
QT Hotel chef Paul Easson, and the hotel group’s forager, Georgie Neal, Sydney
Georgie Neal was appointed to the newly created role of forager for the QT Hotel group in May last year.
As head chef of the hotel’s restaurant Gowings Bar & Grill, Easson’s workload was preventing him from devoting sufficient time to building relationships with producers and growers, hence the need for someone else to drive up hill and down dale across NSW seeking out seasonal and ethical produce.
Easson likes where the collaboration is heading; his menu is more produce-driven than before. Now a monthly list of producers appears on the top-left-hand corner of the Gowings menu.
From Karen and David Borg at Willowbrae Chevre comes ashed chevre in a salad with salt-baked baby beetroot; Fabrics Rolando from First Farm Organics provides exotic plants and herbs such as sundew — in this instance, served over steamed scallops with garlic and ginger juice — and olive herb that Easson adds to his lush truffle macaroni ’n’cheese.
And the apple and quince in the hot pocket turnovers with raspberry and turmeric sherbet are grown by John Reynolds from Nashdale Fruit Company.
Neal thrives on the connection to the producers and the team loves to swap recipe ideas with the chefs. “Turning up with a carload of amazing produce, it’s hard not to offer some suggestions,” she says.
There are hiccups at times but that’s just part of dealing with nature.
“Sometimes things we had planned to put on the menu are affected by rain or late to come into season, but that’s all part of running a seasonal menu,” says Easson.
“Georgie covers a lot of miles in her little car to meet people and it’s amazing how many boxes of beautiful produce she manages to squeeze in to bring back to the hotel.” qthotelsandresorts.com
I actually drive past the chickens every weekend and see how happy they are
Rosa Mitchell in her Rosa’s Canteen, Melbourne
Clockwise from top, supplier Ross O’Meara, left, of Bruny Island Food with David Moyle of Hobart restaurant Franklin; O’Meara at work; the pair with a finished ham PICTURES: PETER MATHEW