"It’s like asking God what heaven is like,” says the man across the table as René Redzepi walks away. My fellow diner has just asked the chef exactly what is on his plate and with good reason. Telling a table of foodie Australians that they are eating native plums results in surprisingly little signs of recognition—none of us have even seen them before. It is more surprising to have a Dane explain them to us, no less the internationally renowned chef himself happily answering questions before calmly wandering back to the small makeshift marquee kitchen at the end of a narrow field.
We are the lucky few guests at ‘Lunch in the Fields’, part of Good Food Month Australia, where world-renowned chefs René Redzepi and Peter Gilmore present lunch at the Hawkesbury farm that produces bespoke vegetables for Gilmore’s Sydney restaurant, Quay.
The farm’s story is some sort of food fairy-tale; successful Quay loses its beloved long-term supplier. Small new farm hears of gourmet restaurant’s search for a supplier and writes a letter to the executive chef. Little farm ditches market stalls and becomes a bespoke grower for said restaurant. Said restaurant grows little farm into famous farm, which now supplies other famous restaurants. The end? It still feels very much like the beginning at Tim Johnstone’s Kitchen Gardens. The small but mighty force is currently producing delicate edible flowers such as society garlic, garnishes such as salty ice plant and rare and heirloom vegetables including mizuna, native violets, micro onions, 14 varieties of radishes and much more.
Farmer Tim Johnstone has been growing produce all his life and started selling heirloom vegetables at local markets. Until recently, he was still working full time at the local council and only assisted by his wife and brother. He is now working part time in an effort to focus on the growing farm, and is joined by a small band of local teenagers at the weekends, whom he has personally trained and jokes that his three young children are his “future labour pool.” Tim has started to supply several more top Sydney restaurants, including The Bridge Room and Otto Ristorante, with his growing methods inspired by Joel Salatin, the renegade American farmer who preaches about natural food and growing.
“We call ourselves artisan growers as the way we grow veggies is so different to large scale vegetable producers. We are more [of] a big garden than a farm. We seed small amounts on a weekly basis and are harvesting small beds twice per week for direct delivery to the restaurants,” he says.
His methods are incredibly labour-intensive, but he maintains it is worth it for optimum flavour in the unusual varieties he specialises in, which are often harder to grow.
“We grow our veggies by feeding the soil, not the plant. We use green manures to build our soil and also incorporate our own compost, mushroom compost and chicken manure. We practice crop rotation, which means we rotate between the different plant ‘families’ to make the best use of our soil nutrients and to disrupt pest cycles. We don’t use synthetic systemic pesticides, instead we use crop rotation, encouraging the good bugs, and use of organic and natural based sprays. Weed control is countless hours of good old fashioned hoeing and hand weeding.”
The surrounding landscape is the bleached yellow-brown of the typical Australian countryside. In what has been an unusually hot spring, the lunch guests are all thankful that it is only a pleasant 25°C and free from the smoke of the nearby bushfires. There has been only 28ml of rain in the five months preceding the lunch and the parched ground is then overwhelmed with 200ml in the two weeks following, making any cultivation a game of three steps forward and one step back. When asked about the difficult conditions, Tim just shrugs and says: “that’s farming.”
Despite the unpredictability of Australia’s climate, the farm’s five acres of land (only two of which are currently being used for farming) harvests around 1,200 items of produce a week.
From field to fork, Gilmore and Johnstone work very closely together. Peter makes regular visits to the farm, often to pour over seed packets and catalogues, and they both do a great deal of research on new and current varieties, working out menu possibilities and schedules. Quay funded some of the farm’s new equipment (a poly tunnel and a tractor) that they pay back in vegetables. It’s an important deal for the farm, which, Tim says, as a new business wouldn’t be eligible for a regular loan and isn’t yet a financial success. The relationship isn’t always seamless though; they joke about Gilmore (pictured below, with Redzepi) asking for raw lima beans that, upon researching, Johnstone discovered were actually poisonous. Gilmore grins and says, “I ate heaps of them and they were delicious.”
Although ‘Lunch in the Fields’ has been an incredible amount of work for Tim, it does feel like a small opportunity for some well deserved recognition from those who know and appreciate good food. It is an event for the general public but also reads like a roll call of Australian’s best kitchens: Kylie Kwong, Neil Perry, Mark Best and James Viles are comfortably sharing kitchen tales at one end of the table. Meanwhile chef extraordinaire René Redzepi looks surprisingly at home on this dusty patch of land.
“The people that make our success are these people that grow our food,” he says. “We should talk about that and celebratethat. Celebrate those that are working for fl avour and deliciousness. Connecting with [our food] is much more important than we realise, especially for people from the cities. As a cook it changes you totally.”
After a quick tour of the small farm and a glass of champagne, we sit down to a six-course meal, with Redzepi and Gilmore cooking three courses each.
Redzepi’s dishes all have strong, almost confronting flavours and two of the three have fermented and sour elements. Gilmore’s are equally complex but more comfortable for the average palate, and I personally feel his pig jowl dish with organic rice, seaweed, buckwheat and golden orach steals the show. It is sweet, the meat so tender as to seem light, and perfectly balanced. Johnstone’s produce of course takes a starring role, bringing the diverse menu together, with delicate flowers and rare vegetables adding subtle flavours and elegant visual fi nishing touches.
Despite the glut of food idols present, ‘Lunch in the Fields’ has a privileged informality about it. The person pouring my wine turns out to be the owner of Crawford River winery in Victoria; Gilmore and Redzepi are personally touring the table, topping up our broth as needed.
Johnstone seems happy to stay in the background, no doubt relieved to see the culmination of much behind-the-scenes patience, passion and sheer hard
work. He describes his early taste of this bigger picture when he fi rst dined at Quay restaurant as “very random”.
“We deal with the natural product then Peter turns it into something so special,” he says. “It gives you a kick: motivation. Now, when they are working on a new dish I sample it so I understand what they try to achieve. I enjoy the collaborative relationship. We are working together for that common goal.”
Photography by Phu Tang