Fat of the Land | Growing Against The Grain

27 Dec 2015
4 min read
A small farm growing rare and heirloom vegetables in the Hawkesbury district of Sydney is one of the keys to Quay restaurant’s success, writes Sophie Hull for FOUR’s International edition…

“It’s like asking God what heaven is like,”says the man across the table as René Redzepiwalks away. My fellow diner has just asked the chefexactly what is on his plate and with good reason.Telling a table of foodie Australians that they areeating native plums results in surprisingly little signsof recognition—none of us have even seen thembefore. It is more surprising to have a Dane explain them to us, no lessthe internationally renowned chef himself happily answering questionsbefore calmly wandering back to the small makeshift marquee kitchenat the end of a narrow field.

We are the lucky few guests at ‘Lunch in the Fields’, part of GoodFood Month Australia, where world-renowned chefs René Redzepi andPeter Gilmore present lunch at the Hawkesbury farm that producesbespoke vegetables for Gilmore’s Sydney restaurant, Quay.

The farm’s story is some sort of food fairy-tale; successful Quayloses its beloved long-term supplier. Small new farm hears of gourmetrestaurant’s search for a supplier and writes a letter to the executivechef. Little farm ditches market stalls and becomes a bespoke growerfor said restaurant. Said restaurant grows little farm into famous farm,which now supplies other famous restaurants. The end? It still feels verymuch like the beginning at Tim Johnstone’s Kitchen Gardens. The smallbut mighty force is currently producing delicate edible flowers such associety garlic, garnishes such as salty ice plant and rare and heirloomvegetables including mizuna, native violets, micro onions, 14 varieties ofradishes and much more.

Farmer Tim Johnstone has been growing produce all his life andstarted selling heirloom vegetables at local markets. Until recently, hewas still working full time at the local council and only assisted by hiswife and brother. He is now working part time in an effort to focus onthe growing farm, and is joined by a small band of local teenagers atthe weekends, whom he has personally trained and jokes that his threeyoung children are his “future labour pool.” Tim has started to supplyseveral more top Sydney restaurants, including The Bridge Room andOtto Ristorante, with his growing methods inspired by Joel Salatin,the renegade American farmer who preaches about natural food andgrowing.

“We call ourselves artisan growers as the way we grow veggies isso different to large scale vegetable producers. We are more [of] abig garden than a farm. We seed small amounts on a weekly basisand are harvesting small beds twice per week for direct delivery tothe restaurants,” he says.

His methods are incredibly labour-intensive, but he maintains it isworth 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. Weuse green manures to build our soil and also incorporate our owncompost, mushroom compost and chicken manure. We practicecrop rotation, which means we rotate between the different plant‘families’ to make the best use of our soil nutrients and to disruptpest cycles. We don’t use synthetic systemic pesticides, instead weuse crop rotation, encouraging the good bugs, and use of organicand natural based sprays. Weed control is countless hours of goodold fashioned hoeing and hand weeding.”

The surrounding landscape is the bleached yellow-brown of thetypical Australian countryside. In what has been an unusually hotspring, the lunchguests are all thankful that it is only a pleasant 25°Cand free from the smoke of the nearby bushfires. There has beenonly 28ml of rain in the five months preceding the lunch and theparched ground is then overwhelmed with 200ml in the two weeksfollowing, making any cultivation a game of three steps forward andone step back. When asked about the difficult conditions, Tim justshrugs and says: “that’s farming.”

Despite the unpredictability of Australia’s climate, the farm’s fiveacres 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 closelytogether. Peter makes regular visits to the farm, often to pour overseed packets and catalogues, and they both do a great deal ofresearch on new and current varieties, working out menu possibilitiesand schedules. Quay funded some of the farm’s new equipment (apoly tunnel and a tractor) that they pay back in vegetables. It’s animportant deal for the farm, which, Tim says, as a new businesswouldn’t be eligible for a regular loan and isn’t yet a financialsuccess. The relationship isn’t always seamless though; they jokeabout Gilmore (pictured below, with Redzepi) asking for raw limabeans that, upon researching, Johnstone discovered were actuallypoisonous. Gilmore grins and says, “I ate heaps of them and theywere delicious.”

Although ‘Lunch in the Fields’ has been an incredible amount ofwork for Tim, it does feel like a small opportunity for some well deservedrecognition from those who know and appreciate goodfood. It is an event for the general public but also reads like a roll callof Australian’s best kitchens: Kylie Kwong, Neil Perry, Mark Best andJames Viles are comfortably sharing kitchen tales at one end of thetable. Meanwhile chef extraordinaire René Redzepi looks surprisinglyat home on this dusty patch of land.

“The people that make our success are these people that growour food,” he says. “We should talk about that and celebratethat. Celebrate those that are working for fl avour anddeliciousness. Connecting with [our food] is muchmore important than we realise, especially for peoplefrom the cities. As a cook it changes you totally.”

After a quick tour of the small farm and a glass ofchampagne, we sit down to a six-course meal, withRedzepi and Gilmore cooking three courses each.
Redzepi’s dishes all have strong, almost confrontingflavours and two of the three have fermented and sourelements. Gilmore’s are equally complex but morecomfortable for the average palate, and I personally feelhis pig jowl dish with organic rice, seaweed, buckwheatand golden orach steals the show. It is sweet, the meatso tender as to seem light, and perfectly balanced.Johnstone’s produce of course takes a starring role,bringing the diverse menu together, with delicateflowers and rare vegetables adding subtle flavours andelegant visual fi nishing touches.

Despite the glut of food idols present, ‘Lunch inthe Fields’ has a privileged informality about it. Theperson pouring my wine turns out to be the owner ofCrawford River winery in Victoria; Gilmore and Redzepiare personally touring the table, topping up our brothas needed.

Johnstone seems happy to stay in the background,no doubt relieved to see the culmination of muchbehind-the-scenes patience, passion and sheer hard
work.He describes his early taste of this bigger picturewhen he fi rst dined at Quay restaurant as “veryrandom”.

“We deal with the natural product then Peter turnsit into something so special,” he says. “It gives youa kick: motivation. Now, when they are working on anew dish I sample it so I understand what they try toachieve. I enjoy the collaborative relationship. We areworking together for that common goal.”

Photography by Phu Tang