garden party

by - May 26, 2016

Chefs may be the new rock stars, but behind the fawning magazine profiles and the celebrity TV gigs, it's a tough life. Not for nothing does the aphorism "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" ring true.

But the collision of two trends is seeing a change in our top kitchens. The "paddock to plate" philosophy is connecting chefs more closely to the produce they work with, while the wider treechange movement is prompting some to step away from the city restaurant pressure cooker to find a healthier, healthier way of life.

Alastair McLeod spent years at the coalface, making his name at the much-loved Bretts Wharf, Hamilton, and launching the highly regarded Tank Restaurant & Bar, in the city. A couple of years ago, though, the charismatic Irishman moved from New Farm to Samford Valley and set up his catering business Al'FreshCo.

His new existence on a two-hectare property complete with cows, a beehive, chooks and a veggie patch is a far cry from inner-city life and the nonstop, high-stress nature of a working kitchen. Not that he's putting his feet up.

"I think there's an impression that you come out to this idyll because you've made your millions and you can just sit here and stroke your cattle all day but it couldn't be further from the truth," Alastair says.

"I do feel less stressed than when I was in a big city restaurant doing a service every day but instead of working 40 hours a week for someone else I'm doing it for myself. In fact, I'm probably working 100 hours a week now but I get to choose which 100 hours they are." Joining Al is his wife Ash, a former TV producer who now runs Al'FreshCo with Alastair and a small, dedicated team.

Alistair McLeod at home in the Samford Valley
Glen Barratt, chef at Brookfield's popular Wild Canary, tells a similar story. He joined the "botanical bistro" in 2014 after a career that has seen him work in some of Brisbane's top kitchens including Tables of Toowong, Two Small Rooms and Restaurant II.

"Don't get me wrong, there's still stress and pressure, but there's also this sense of enjoyment and pleasure that comes from the opportunity to get back to the basics," says Glen, a supporter of farmers' markets, local produce and permaculture who also lives in the Samford Valley with his wife, five children and an ever-growing organic garden.

"It's the little things, like the simple act of walking out to the kitchen garden we have at Wild Canary to collect herbs, instead of having them delivered to the back door of the restaurant.

Glen Barratt in his kitchen garden at Wild Canary in Brookfield

"Even though there are still plenty of high pressure moments, you can look up to the clouds, see the butterflies and watch our customers exploring the garden. It kind of puts it all in perspective." For both men, the move was prompted by a desire to reconnect with produce and create "real food".

Both Alastair and Glen reel off the names of farmers and producers from both the Brisbane region and the Lockyer Valley as if they're talking about familiar friends - and in some cases they are. They know exactly where things have come from and the processes that have brought them from the paddock to the plate.

"The local farmers have become friends. It's nice to hear what's happening from their end. It makes the whole transaction so much more personal, which you definitely don't get working in a fast-paced city kitchen." Alastair, who is a regular presenter on Channel 7's The Great South East, says getting back to the reason he became a chef in the first place was part of the thinking behind his decision to start a market stall when Bretts Wharf closed almost four years ago.

"I arrived at this fork in the road and I had to think about what it was that I really wanted to do," he says. "So basically Ash and I became carnies, travelling to and from the markets and getting back to real, authentic food. I kind of had this moment when it became very clear to me that there's no correlation between how complicated you can make a dish and how delicious it is, so a market stall just made sense." One of Alastair's market hits was his "croque madman" - a take on the classic French grilled ham, cheese and egg sandwich.

"We used bread made by Terry Wilson (of Leavain Bakery) for the market, our butter came from Camille Mortaud from Gympie Farm, who also had a stall, and the ham, cheese and eggs were all from local suppliers," he says. "It wasn't complicated - just delicious."

This passion for the very best local produce is also evident in Glen's ever-changing menu at Wild Canary. Meals are strewn with seasonal herbs and vegetables, while spectacular cakes are decorated liberally with edible flowers.

It's an enthusiasm that has rubbed off on the young chefs he works with in the kitchen.

"In the city, as an apprentice, you're not exposed to where the food actually comes from," he says. "You're not taken out to see where tomatoes or cucumbers would be growing, to see where eggs are being laid - they just turn up on the back doorstep. I make an effort to take my guys with me as often as possible to meet the farmers."

The whole thing suggests an alluring simplicity that can sometimes be lost in the hubbub of a city restaurant. "The main job of the chef is to manage a business that, in this country, is operating with a profit margin of just two to four per cent on average, so it's not really in the best interest of the business for me to be out foraging for parsley," Alastair says.

"Instead I need to be in the restaurant managing this slim-margin business and we all know that's not really the core skill of a chef." Alastair and Glen aren't the only ones who are enjoying a greater connection to the food they prepare thanks to their semi-rural status.
Ben Devlin left city fine diner Esquire to launch Paper Daisy at Cabarita Beach, where he can cook in view of the pool.

Three Blue Ducks chef Darren Robertson swapped the bright lights of Sydney for a quieter life in Byron Bay to open a farmside business complete with restaurant, cafe and deli, and there are many others following their lead. It's a trend that looks set to continue as the dining public's appetite for unprocessed, "real" ingredients grows.

"I've been cooking for 25 years and, truthfully, I've never been happier," Glen says.

First published in Brisbane News, 9 March 2016

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