A new crop of eco-minded restaurateurs is redefining our relationship to food, the land and its people.
By PAUL BEST
FORTY YEARS AGO, when Alla Wolf-Tasker returned from France, where she had trained as a chef, to open her restaurant, Lake House, in the Victorian town of Daylesford, the idea of minimising one’s impact on the environment scarcely crossed her mind. Sustainability wasn’t a thing. Nor were phrases such as “food miles”, “carbon footprint”, “zero waste” and “closed loop”.
Rather, she set out to emulate what she had loved during her time away: chefs, fully immersed in their local communities, who drew on neighbouring producers and growers to stock their kitchens and furnish their menus. “I loved what I saw, but I didn’t understand what I was seeing,” says Wolf-Tasker.
It took many years, but four decades on, the celebrated chef-cum-restaurateur proudly indicates she sources the bulk of her produce locally. “Originally, it was for the enchantment of it,” says the self-confessed warrior for local food supply. “Now I have a restaurant fully invested in our local community.”
It’s a stance adopted by many top-end restaurants, with words such as “seasonal” and “local” appearing on menus all the way from St Kilda to Surry Hills. Sustainability and locally grown produce have revolutionised the restaurant industry, and now most chefs worth their (locally harvested) salt take these approaches into consideration when designing their menus.
Take, for example, the proliferation of restaurants with kitchen gardens. Ben Shewry of Attica, a cutting-edge diner in the inner Melbourne suburb of Ripponlea, was an early adopter. A decade ago, the New Zealand-born chef established a sprawling 2000-square-metre garden in nearby heritage-listed Rippon Lea Estate, featuring more than 100 plants — produce that Shewry often supplemented with wild foraging.
In Queensland’s Daintree Rainforest, the tropical luxury retreat Silky Oaks Lodge converted an old tennis court into a kitchen garden to supply its 90-seat Treehouse Restaurant. The garden features 24 raised planter beds, with herbs and aromatics (lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime), as well as trellises with various beans and legumes.
In addition, there are walking trails with Davidson’s plums, blue quandongs and cluster figs, which are part of a guided tour for guests. “We have at least 128 edibles on site,” says Silky Oaks Lodge executive chef Mark Godbeer. He’s trying to create a “rainforest within a rainforest” in his kitchen garden, with structures to support creepers that form a canopy to allow more fragile fare to be grown beneath. Godbeer says the restaurant follows an ethos of “pick one, grow two”. The team has just planted a tea crop and does its own fermenting and pickling.
“We’re exploring as many avenues as we can to make this space thrive, given the unique and sometimes harsh, unrelenting environment,” he says. “We do everything with sustainability in mind.”
Wolf-Tasker, too, has gone the extra mile by setting up her own 38-acre farm (with accommodation) “10 minutes down the road”. Dairy Flat Farm has beehives, an heirloom orchard, an olive grove and five acres of gardens and hoop houses — enough to supply up to 90 per cent of the menu between December and May. You’ll always see a dish named “The Art of the Vegetable” on the menu, sourced entirely from the farm, such as a tarte tatin of root vegetables with sherry caramel glaze and mustard sauce. “For us, it’s walking the walk, not just talking the talk,” says Wolf-Tasker.
Further south in Tasmania, the patron chef of Van Bone, Tim Hardy, uses his own small farm in the rolling hills of Marion Bay at Bream Creek to supply 90 per cent of the plant-based produce needed for his restaurant. Local producers supply the remainder, plus meat, seafood and dairy. It’s part of a minimal-intervention ethos that Hardy and his wife, Laura Stucken, adopted after working at Brae, a celebrated dining destination with an international reputation for sustainability in south-west Victoria.
Hardy also took inspiration from stints at Lake House, the now-closed Garagistes in Hobart, and Swedish two-Michelin-starred tavern Daniel Berlin Krog. “[These experiences] changed the way I thought about food,” he says.
When he found a site for his 16-seat restaurant, 50 minutes’ drive from Hobart, Hardy established orchards and a vegetable garden with more than a dozen beds on rotation. Additionally, like Brae, he planted native trees to attract bird and insect life, and an edible native garden, using plants such as kunzea (a shrub with eucalyptus-scented leaves) to flavour sauces, meat and a granita dessert.
He has also embraced Brae’s regenerative farming practices, through soil rehabilitation, composting, creating windbreaks and establishing an ecosystem of birds and insects to eradicate pests and assist pollination. “We’ve been working on our vegetable garden soil for four years,” says Hardy.
Maintaining a close connection to the land is paramount, as is caring for it so that it can be enjoyed by generations to come. Lake House practises regenerative farming through low soil tillage, cover cropping (planting species to help manage soil erosion and fertility), crop rotation and a ban on sprays and herbicides.
Moonah, an upmarket 12-seater set among the Connewarre wetlands on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, takes a like-minded approach with what chef-owner Tobin Kent calls “natural farming”. “I’m inspired by the way things grow in nature and natural systems,” he says. This means next to no intervention, letting plants complete their growth cycle from flower to seed, allowing the crop to self-regenerate. “It gives food a lot of character,” explains Kent. “You get a lot of terroir from your vegetables.”
David Moyle, long associated with sustainable dining through ventures such as Franklin and Longsong, says truly sustainable food stems from building relationships with the right suppliers, producers and growers, supporting them, then bringing diners along for the ride.
He applied this approach to Harvest, a sustainability-driven restaurant, deli and bakery with kitchen gardens and a farm set in the hinterland behind Byron Bay, which he joined two years ago as creative director. “It’s not just about applying a fine-dining model but a community model,” explains Moyle.
“It’s not just about buying produce pertaining to be sustainable, but rather it’s more the practice of the restaurant and how to communicate that with customers.” And that’s the point. Sustainable dining is being driven as much by the restaurants as it is by diners. “Consumers have made it clear they’re prepared to pay more if they know the business is sustainable,” says Restaurant & Catering Australia CEO Belinda Clarke.
Freyja, a new fine dining restaurant in Melbourne’s CBD helmed by Korean-born chef Jae Bang, takes a broad view of sustainability, one that includes staff welfare and supports a healthy work-life balance. This means closing the restaurant on weekends and public holidays, streamlining shifts and giving staff opportunities to be creative.
“Everyone talks about sustainability in terms of wastage and the environment, but it’s more important to forge a sustainable relationship with our people,”says Bang, who made his name at two Michelin-star Norwegian restaurant Re-naa.
Bang believes in supporting micro-growers, and seeks produce that’s uncommon, not highly regarded or likely to be thrown out. He uses blackcurrant wood to infuse oil for kingfish crudo, while leftover bread is used to flavour ice cream. He favours the undervalued celtuce stalk, and the undersized scampi bycatch that tastes sweeter but would usually be discarded. “At Re-naa, I learned not to throw things out, not to waste,” Bang says.
Minimising waste in all its forms is key, whether through recycling food, reusing water or composting. Massimo Mele, food director of Grain of the Silos in Launceston, says he plans with producers what the restaurant needs up to 12 months in advance. “There’s less wastage that way,” he says. “It’s also more sustainable for growers supplying just to us. We have produce for longer in the season and nobody needs to worry about any excess.”
It also saves money, which taps into what Wolf-Tasker calls the “triple bottom line” benefits of sustainability: environmental, social and financial (there’s even a fourth if you count the health benefits).
Mele has also employed ex-Attica chef Mika Chae, who brought with him Shewry’s no-waste, nose-to-tail ethic. “Mika makes a sauce out of fish scraps, like he did at Attica,” says Mele.
The best exponent of nose-to-tail — or, rather, fin-to-tail — is Sydney’s Josh Niland, chef-owner of fish eatery Saint Peter, which moves to Paddington’s Grand National Hotel next summer. Niland treats fish as seasonal, using lesser-known species, trusted fishermen and wild catch. But it is his use of all parts of the fish — eyes, stomach, intestines and bones — that sets him apart. It may be fish-eye chips, a garum sauce made from whiting offal or tuna ’nduja from trimmings.
“Even if you use the most sustainable fish, whatever that means, if you throw half of that fish in the bin, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s sustainable… it’s not sustainable cooking,” Niland says. “[Using the whole fish] is an ethically and economically responsible way of cooking.”
This belief motivated Niland to open his retail fish shop Fish Butchery and his Murray-cod takeaway joints Charcoal Fish, based on a charcoal-chicken shop, which has in turn helped support the restaurant’s whole-fish approach and inform his clientele. “It’s exactly like a closed loop [recycling system],” he says. “We’re trying to create our own circle.”