WholefoodIn a crowded, competitive marketplace, ‘sustainability’ is a bit of a buzzword. What does it really mean, and is it good business? Sita Simons reports.

From kitchen gardens to beekeeping, fruit and nut orchards to farm gates, the locavore movement that has been ticking along over a number of years in rural Australia is now firmly at the industry’s door—with some of our best-known and most successful chefs leading the way.

For former Longrain executive chef Martin Boetz, it’s a business he has committed all his time, energy and resources to.

After his departure from his flagship restaurant in 2013, Boetz created the Cooks Co-op—a 28-acre plot of farmland along the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, from which he grows and sells produce to restaurants, hosts events, and passionately promotes the region’s wide variety of local produce.

“The idea behind The Cooks Co-Op is to support local farmers that have been growing food here for a very long time,” he says. “They’re going out of business because people aren’t aware of the beautiful bounty of produce we have.”

The big picture

Though sustainable food production is interconnected with ideas such as free-range, ethical standards, biodynamic, local and organic, the concept is more concerned with the whole picture.

“People are used to seeing organic in the supermarkets these days, but often it’s just generic produce,” he says.
“A sustainable approach is buying from the farmers and suppliers in your region—food that supports the community, has travelled only short distances, and is in season, whether it’s been certified organic or not. The chef’s end goal is to please the customer—but rather than, say, buying in asparagus that has come from South America, a sustainable culture creates a sense of excitement and demand by waiting for the season and making it something special.”

Customers also want the story, says Kim Currie of The Zin House in Mudgee, country NSW, which specialises in using produce from the 1000-acre farm that surrounds it. This way of running her business evolved for her, she says, from being a more traditional restaurateur buying all her supplies from wholesalers, to recognising that buying local linked her into the community and that there was an important role to play in supporting it.

From the early days of buying a few boxes here and there, Currie now works on a 50/50 growing and buying model, continuing to support other local providers, while using her own produce.

“I think it’s part of the package of cooking and loving food to want to get your hands in the dirt, but you need to look around and see what others are doing before going all guns blazing planting. This is a great cherry-growing region for instance, so we purposefully don’t plant cherry trees. Artisans specialise in amazing mushrooms, so it only makes sense to buy from them and not attempt to be in competition. Sustainability is about balance and species diversity.”

“A sustainable culture creates a sense of excitement and demand by waiting for the season and making it something special”—Martin Boetz, the Cook’s Co-Op, Sackville.

Currie has been a prime figure in the region’s food and producing scene for over 30 years, and has seen the shift in consciousness of the customer reach new heights over recent years. “There’s no doubt that a sustainable business ticks all the boxes for the customer, and it’s in direct reaction to the fast, over-consuming world we live in. People are looking for something real in an age when so much is fake, but it’s in our DNA to need a connection with nature and the soil.”

It’s not the easy route and takes commitment in time, effort and investment. Donna Carrier spent many years in Sydney’s food industry before moving back to her home town in the Manning Valley on the mid-north coast of NSW. “Despite all the food production going on here, there was hardly anyone basing their business around it, and there’s still too few,” she says. Carrier opened her regional food store and café, Bent on Food, 11 years ago and is still going strong.

“I was clear from the beginning that I wanted a sustainable business. I pay more for the product and I dedicate a lot of time to collecting orders, sourcing new products and spending time with the producers—but it all pays into a unique environment that customers respond to. I can tell you where the steak on your sandwich came from, and that it was ethically raised. On any given day, producers will be in and out with their products, so it’s an interactive atmosphere. We create an experience, where customers can see, feel and taste the difference. It’s a collaborative thing, where my business relies on my support of others, and this is both rewarding and fulfilling,” she explains.

All three agree that taste and quality are happy byproducts, and this ultimately is what draws people back.

“As a result of choosing and completely committing to this approach I cooked better food, I was a better chef and I have a better business. It became part of our story,” says Currie. “But it isn’t something you can come at from a marketing angle. It’s the very authenticity that defines it, what makes it sing—and this is what customers recognise.”

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