Restaurants and chefs are getting more involved in understanding the supply chain of how their produce arrives to their door and how it is grown. It goes beyond the source to researching the principals behind the farmers, their practices and philosophy. For the last few years, they and restaurateurs have been taking it a step further purchasing their own farms that are way more than the kitchen garden.
Located in the Strathbogie Ranges in Victoria sits Oak Valley Farm, a 2000 acre farm. With a remarkable range of produce – from livestock to fruit from the orchards and vegetables in the garden – it’s a chefs delight. But in this instance it is just one chef, Simon Tarlington, the head chef at Highline Restaurant in Windsor that has sole use of the produce. Both the farm and the restaurant (located in The Railway Hotel) are owned by Wayne Sullivan who as luck would have it has a love of good food and wine. We spoke to chef Simon Tarlington to hear how he works with the farm to create dishes for the menu and restaurant;
What is produced on the farm and how do you decided what to use?
We can’t produce everything at the farm but what we do produce we utilise on the menus as a main component such as beef, lamb, pork, honey, eggs, fruit from the orchards and heirloom vegetables from the gardens. What we can’t grow at the farm, such as seafood, we source from like- minded suppliers that strongly believe in creating a sustainable supply chain that is low on food miles and contributes to rather than detracts from the environment.
Whilst I try to get up to the farm as often as I can, with the demands of the kitchen this is not as regularly as I would like. But when creating new menus, or when the is a change of season I make sure that I spend as much time at Oak Valley as possible. This helps inspire me too. Otherwise, every week I meet with the owner (Wayne Sullivan) who spends 5 days a week at the farm and General Manger Peter McCormack to discuss what’s growing, being harvested, planted, or needs to be utilised and when the livestock is ready. It’s a little different to ordering direct from suppliers especially with livestock as you need to allow additional time for the livestock to be butchered after the abattoir.
What is satisfying about being able to source your ingredients this way?
My cooking philosophy is farm to table focusing on fresh flavours, seasonal produce and sustainable practices. I have always believed in supporting local suppliers and farmers that highlight the best of our vast range of unique produce within Australia. Working at Highline and Oak Valley has given me a better understanding of farm to table. I get a great deal of satisfaction from planting a seed, watching it grow and eventually being able to use the end produce on a dish.
By being involved in the process it has given me the utmost respect for all farmers and the amount of work that goes into creating produce. It also provides you with a much greater appreciation of how reliant we are on mother nature. This has taught my team and I to utilise these products in the best way possible, pushing us as chefs to create new and interesting menu items with no waste.
What are the farm values & how does this tie in to your food and restaurant philosophy?
Our farming philosophy is quite simple, that is, minimal intervention and only using sustainable practices. We use organic fertilizers sourced locally from a poultry farm along with the horse stud on our pastures. We do not deep rip our paddocks, we use solar power on our pumps, we manually control weeds, we do not do any broad acre spraying, we do not overgraze our land ie we have a low stocking density, we parallel rip to reduce soil erosion and we are a member of the Burnt Creek Landcare Group. As a result of our plantations we are carbon positive and our produce has very low food miles. All of this ties in with our food and restaurant philosophy of sustainability. If a product has not grown to the way we were predicting we have no choice but to utilise it in any way we can. Fallen fruits and overgrown vegetables are feed to the pigs, food scraps, coffee grinds and old shredded menus are collected in the hotel and used for compost. Excess produce is used for preserves and meats are cured.
Farm aside, how do you continue to evolve as a chef?
I read a lot, talk to other chefs and dine out whenever I have a chance. I always continue to evolve as a chef by incorporating new ingredients, refining my technique and learning new things every day from my work colleagues, farmers and suppliers. There is so much changing in our industry everyday and it would be ignorant of me to turn my back on new ideas.
Did participating in Appetite for Excellence help you in anyway and if so in what way?
As a national finalists in 2014, I was asked lots of question on my beliefs of the industry, trends and my philosophy throughout program . If it wasn’t for these questions I don’t think I would have ever stopped to think about the path I wanted to take in the industry, where I wanted my career to go and my impact on the supply chain.