My housemate is smoking in a cow print dressing gown. I am asking advice, ‘But the bit where he told me stuff off the record was the juicy bit! There were even parts where he mouthed words so they weren’t picked up by the recorder but I could lip read!’ My housemate takes a drag of her cigarette, and sautes me with a withering look, ‘It’s an issue of trust. You can’t abuse his trust.’ The cow print hath spoken. In which SARAH COLES learns the crap side of journalism talking to an incredible chef.
Andrew McConnell could have tickets on himself and yet doesn’t. He doesn’t even think he is famous even though he has won Good Food Guide chef of the year three times, owns several of the best eating venues in the country and is a columnist for The Saturday Paper. Last summer when I was crowd funding I sent a begging email to a dozen or so Australian chefs and Andrew McConnell was the only one who backed my project Rooted. Receiving the support of the award winning chef behind Cumulus, Cutler & Co, Moon Under Water, Cumulus Up, Supernormal, Luxembourg and The Builder’s Arms was galvanising. The good vibes kept on coming when McConnell agreed to an interview at Cutler and Co last month. I wanted to interview a chef because they have an honest working relationship with producers and are often the vanguard in the war on crap food. I took a packet of Costuluto Genovese tomato seeds as a present to say thank you for backing my project. ‘A must-have for all cooks, the meaty ribbed texture is ideal for preserving and sauces, or just enjoy it sliced and eaten fresh.’ I’ll be honest, I was hoping the tomatoes would turn up in one of his glorious The Saturday Paper columns next summer and that my project, like a remora stuck on the side of McConnell’s shark, would go far.
McConnell’s restaurants tick a lot of sustainability boxes. The vegies are sourced locally from suppliers such as Glenora Heritage Produce. ‘We work with growers who are organic primarily. We work directly with an old Italian farmer called Albert who just loads his car up with whatever he’s got on the day and comes and sees us.’ McConnell points out that when you work closely with farmers you can’t help but cook seasonally, ‘At the wholesale markets you can get everything all year round now. I don’t think it is reality. I don’t think we should cook that way.’
McConnell mentions that they buy asparagus from Bridge Farm. Asparagus is the perfect vegetable to mention because I have been contemplating a recent infographic by The Foodprint Melbourne project, who are looking at the effects of urban sprawl on Melbourne’s foodbowl. 94% of Melbourne’s asparagus is grown in the peri-urban edges of the city in Koo Wee Rup, where the soil is great but under threat of development. In the words of Ben Bush from RRR’s Greening The Apocalypse, ‘It’s the asparagus capital of the Southern Hemisphere.’ McConnell works with a diverse assortment of peri-urban producers like Bridge Farm asparagus to source restaurant produce, ‘There is not one particular farm that can do everything on a small production.’
You can tell a lot about a commercial kitchen’s sustainability by finding out what happens to their food waste. In this case, the general manager, Oliver Shorthouse has a 12 acre farm. He collects all of the food scraps and composts them on his farm. McConnell says, ‘It’s unreal. It’s such a beautiful thing. I really wish that we had the resources to be doing that ourselves in the restaurant.’ He takes out his phone and starts showing me photos, ‘It’s the real deal. It’s in Silvern which is an hour away. Silvern was known as the fruit bowl. A lot of stone fruits and berries over the years were from that area. It’s very fertile.’
McConnell talks about how the industry has changed. ‘It has grown exponentially over the last fifteen years. There are a lot more restaurants, a lot more people dining out. I think the restaurant industry has grown and changed in response to people’s wants and needs and interest in food.’ I ask McConnell if he thinks this is in response to shows like MasterChef. Prior to the interview my plan was to get McConnell to bag out MasterChef but he says, ‘I can’t bag out MasterChef…I think it has been really fantastic for my industry and it has bought and educated a lot of people along the way about food.’
It is no secret that I find MasterChef problematic. During the Aztec empire being a cook was rather serious. Civitello (2011) writes, ‘There was an upside and a downside to being a cook for nobility in a culture that practiced human sacrifice. The upside: you were employed in a wealthy household, so you had food. The downside: when the nobility died, they needed their chefs to cook for them in the afterlife. There serious downside: the nobles were buried dead but the cooks were buried alive.’ I wonder if MasterChef would have more integrity if the contestants were buried alive when George Calombaris kicks the bucket?
In all seriousness, my problem with MasterChef is threefold. For a start here’s Coles marketing and store development director, Simon McDowell: “We are incredibly excited to once again be supplying all of the food for the MasterChef Australia pantry. After six consecutive years of partnership, we continue to believe, more than ever, that all Australians can cook like a MasterChef, by shopping where a MasterChef shops.” (see Malcolm Knox Supermarket Monsters) Next I have a problem with the network the program airs on. As of the year ending 31 August 2014 Gina Rinehart owned 256,396,911 shares of the network. As someone interested in both the environment and worker’s rights, the idea of a woman who wrote a crap poem about ‘special economic zones’ and dreams of paying overseas workers a pittance to dig up coal is offensive at best. And let’s not even get started on my sense of unease in learning that Rinehart is buying up big across Australian dairy.
‘Ms Rinehart has reached agreement with the Queensland Government on a $500 million dairy export deal to send infant formula to China. Hope Dairies, majority owned by Ms Rinehart’s main company Hancock Prospecting, will produce pharmaceutical grade infant formula and UHT milk at a Queensland processing plant, a statement by Ms Rinehart said.’
My final gripe with MasterChef is that it doesn’t take the craft seriously. In the middle ages to be a chef was a serious business. First you had to join a guild and undergo three stages of development: apprenticeship, journeyman, and master. When I put it to McConnell that the contestants on MasterChef should have to learn to sharpen their knives on a whetstone before they are allowed near a kitchen and that the show sucks the craft out of being a chef he agrees in part, ‘The craft of what we do is lost. That craft is instilled in chefs I suppose through the apprenticeship system that we still have in place. I think it’s really important. It gets knocked a lot but it slows down the learning process a little bit and focuses on not just knowledge but also skills and crafts which I think is really important. I think that a six month crash course is not, cannot and will not, ever cover everything.’
The same number of people that are food insecure in this country (1.2 million) is nearly the same as the average number that sit down to watch an episode of MasterChef each week (1.02 million). As I learned speaking with Patrick Lawrence and Russell Shields from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, a lot of Australians are food insecure and don’t know where the next meal is coming from. According to a 2012 SecondBite report ‘approximately 1.2 million people cannot regularly provide themselves with a culturally appropriate, safe and nutritious food supply from a non-emergency source.’ It occurs to me that if just over 5% of Australians don’t know where their dinner is coming from one in 20 people that walk past where McConnell and I sit inside Cutler and Co don’t know where dinner is coming from. (This estimate is probably even higher if asylum seekers who live in the nearby commission flats are walking past.) I ask McConnell, ‘I’m just wondering do you think about that stuff? Because it’s a whole new world in here because if you were eating here you are lucky, I think. So do you do any charity work with FairShare and SecondBite and…’ He answers, ‘Not so much with FairShare of SecondBite. We do a lot of work with different organisations, particularly various medical research facilities. We choose to work with one of two foundations and then I try to work with local primary schools with donations, the local community and the asylum centre around the corner.’
I apologise for asking a question that had the air of a guilt trip and reframe it by explaining that asylum seekers only have $20 for food for a whole week and that I want to know how you go from that to fine dining. ‘How do they meet those two things?’ McConnell says, ‘They don’t really meet. I think there’s different levels within the food industry from fine dining to a three dollar roll on Victoria Street. There’s many different levels and everyone’s different socio-economic level is different. What concerns me more is not people that can’t afford to eat at Cutler and can afford to eat there, I think that’s irrelevant…What concerns me more is not what level people can and can’t eat at in the market, it’s the distribution of wealth that is broadening in Australia now for the first time…When you say that people will only have $20 at the end of the week to live off is a concern. I’d like to think that there was more happening to approach that. I’m not saying that as an activist or anything, I’m just saying that as an everyday person.’
A few years ago McConnell added his name to a food labeling charter put together by Greenpeace. They were petitioning the state government about a change in the food labeling laws surrounding genetically modified organisms. When I say to McConnell, ‘Can I ask you what you think about all of that stuff?’ he points to the packet of Diggers Club organic tomato seeds and says, ‘This is where I shop. It says it all. I think GMOs are an incredibly dangerous and unnecessary kind of direction. Completely. The other side have concocted all kinds of arguments pro GMO but I really don’t think it is reality at all. I just think it’s dangerous, unexplored territory. I don’t like the idea of some of those seeds escaping. More than anything that is what I’m concerned about.’ (My thoughts turn to WA organic farmer Steve Marsh who tried to sue his neighbour when GM canola blew over the fence and contaminated his organic farm. He lost the case and the subsequent appeal and is now in the process of taking it to the High Court.)
A friend of mine used to work as a waitress for McConnell. She says that he paid award wages and that when she quit the restaurant to pursue her art the restaurant invited her to take part in an exit interview. When I ask McConnell about his staff he talks about ‘maintaining a relationship with the people that you spend 60+ hours a week with,’ and explains that if you treat people fairly they will stay with you and that this loyalty leads to growth–growth such as the opening of a new venue, Meatsmith, just days before the interview.
On the day Meatsmith opened the vegan terrorists struck. ‘First day we opened we had people come in and abuse my business partner and then they walked out the front and threw beetroot juice over the front of the shop which I thought was kind of ironic,’ McConnell says. Meatsmith is a specialty butcher. The brainchild of McConnell and butcher Troy Wheeler, it started trading next door to Organic Wholefoods on Smith Street a fortnight ago at 273 Smith Street. Number 273 was formerly Soul Food Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant that had been running for thirty odd years. What the vegans didn’t know but might find interesting was the man who founded Soul Food cut his teeth in the food world working in an abattoir. He started a vegetarian restaurant on a whim after his car broke down and some vegetarians came to the rescue. He tolerated the vegans who made up a large part of his customers but would often stop chopping pumpkin to bemoan their existence by gritting his teeth, rolling his head back and spitting out the word ‘vegans’.
The whole ethos of Meatsmith is fostering a paddock to plate awareness. ‘It’s sad that people came in and said, “You shouldn’t be selling meat. You’ve opened next to this organic grocer and blah blah blah.” And we said well they sell meat next door where you go so please give us a break. We didn’t have the opportunity to explain our approach and the farmers that we’ve chosen to work with and our approach to butchery.’ Meatsmith want to work with a lot of smaller production farmers who farm responsibly. They aren’t organic or biodynamic but they work with farmers that they trust. They’ve engaged a lot of small producers. McConnell mentions an email he received from a man interested in spearheading wild deer as a new source of meat.They are thinking laterally here.
Andrew McConnell’s business partner Troy Wheeler has been a butcher since he was 15. He grew up in Barham, a cropping community on the border of NSW and Victoria on the banks of the Murray. McConnell speaks highly of Wheeler, ‘I can bone a leg of lamb in six minutes but he can do it in two.’ After growing up on a wheat, rice and cattle farm where water either fell from the sky or could be purchased expensively from Deniliquen and learning butchery for a long time Wheeler is well placed to know what responsible food looks like. I speak to him at the Meatsmith premises behind a cabinet full of freshly skinned rabbits. After leaving Barham Wheeler landed a job with Peter Bouchier, a high end butchers in Toorak and ended up managing the place for 12 years before leaving to pursue Meatsmith dreams. ‘Andrew and I met on a mutual level. I was a fan of all of his restaurants. I think they’re amazing.’ McConnell used to shop at the butchers where Wheeler worked. He ended up helping McConnell source and age meat at the Builder’s Arms after work at night. The idea for Meatsmith was born. Over two years ago they started talking about the craft of butchery and the impact of cheap imports of boxed meats hitting the industry. They talked about how hard it was to source rare breeds from small producers for restaurants.
With a keen sustainability focus, Wheeler has spent a lot of time ‘helping chefs utilise the meats that they are using, eliminating a lot of the waste by turning it into other things, instead of using the best bit and throwing the rest away. Everything we use gets turned into something amazing whether it be terrines, sausages…’ Wheeler’s passion is obvious, ‘Every type of fat has a different property so you can utilise it in different ways and be quite creative.’ I tell Wheeler that I used to work in the building back when it was vegan mecca Soul Food. As we walk up the stairs so that he can show me the hanging room I wonder if the building is haunted by the ghost of the $4.50 lentil pattie with side salad. I ask Wheeler about the Operation Beetroot and his response, like the man, is measured, ‘I was out the front slicing meat for an order…It is not uncommon. I’ve had it happen before.’ Most of the Meatsmith cabinet is locally sourced from Victorian farmers. ‘I spent most of the early part of this year driving around and visiting small farmers. When I was younger and working in the country I was a little bit naive and I didn’t really know what was going on but I used to see a lot of farmers used to come in and get their sheep and cows processed at the butchery. We would cut it down and package it for them. During that time I saw a lot of small farmers with breed specific sheep and cows and the difference in quality and the make-up of those animals was really, really interesting. After I left Peter Bouchier’s I thought to myself I would really like to give an opportunity back to these farmers that spend their life nurturing these things, an avenue to sell their product and sell their story.’
Meatsmith are working with the Heritage Sheep Association which involves a dozen different lamb farmers, ‘They might drop off five lambs and they are so proud.’ I tell Wheeler about the biggest backer of this project–a lamb farmer from country Victoria who loves sheep so much he has a coffee table book of old varieties like the flat faced Shropshires. Wheeler’s eyes light up, ‘What’s their breed of sheep?’
What I find disappointing from a direct action point of view is that instead of targeting the supermarket a few doors down that sells factory farmed meat those two vegans focussed on a business that sells locally sourced, heritage breeds raised on a small scale. In his essay about how Coles and Woolworths have ripped the guts out of Australian farming Knox quotes Senator Xenophon, “The end game is that they are pushing Australian farmers off the land. Farmers who have contracts with them become like medieval serfs.” If I was a vegan I would save my bucket of fake blood for the produce aisle of the supermarkets who enslave farmers and make billions out of the pokies. Better yet, I’d load up a super soaker and target places that stock Baiada Poultry–in response to the tragic death of contract worker Sarel Singh at their Laverton North factory in 2010. (Mr Singh was decapitated whilst working as a cleaner at the factory.) Baiada owns Lilydale Free Range Chicken which is stocked in Woolworths at 255 Smith Street, a few doors down from Meatsmith. I would, in short, pick a better target. This whole vegan/meat thing is complex. Some of my all favourite people are vegans but Charles Darwin, founder of evolutionary theory, wasn’t adverse to snacking on the odd armadillo. Were he alive today, Darwin might pop in to Meatsmith on the way home from the lab to pick up some sausages for dinner.
The interview with McConnell and Wheeler took place a couple of weeks ago but I had to sit on it and reflect on how to play this thing. Both McConnell and Wheeler told me juicy things off the record. I asked a garlic farmer for advice on how to write this chapter. I framed it as a binary whereby I either had to write the article McConnell would like and would share with his billion fans on social media thus assuring the success of my project, or I could write the truth, include the off-the-record bits, piss McConnell off and doom myself to obscurity. The garlic farmer said, ‘I would choose the option one.’ I checked in with journalist academia, ‘Off-the-record is a domain of discourse between newsmakers and their sources in which public disclosure of what is said is ethically forbidden.’ I sent my favorite journalist Martin McKenzie Murray a direct message on twitter, ‘Hello Martin- When people tell you things off the record that are amazing– as a journalist how do you not go insane?’ and he wrote back, ‘haha yeah, that can be frustrating.’ In the end I didn’t make an ethical decision at all. I just like McConnell and Wheeler. I have a deep respect for both of them. If this were the middle ages, having moved through apprentice and journeyman phases, they’d both be considered masters.
Last year the Good Food Guide co-editor made McConnell sound psychic, ‘McConnell has this innate ability to predict how Melburnians want to eat, even before we know ourselves,’ so for my final question I ask McConnell what I should eat for dinner. ‘You should probably eat asparagus.’
During the interview it became apparent that McConnell thought that I was writing a book called The Future of Food. I set him straight ‘Its called Rooted’ and jokingly wondered if I had somehow accidentally scored an interview with Australia’s best chef. He assured me that I hadn’t, ‘There are no accidents,’ is how he put it. After interviewing McConnell and Wheeler I returned to the island. That night six of us tucked in to a dinner of Phillip Island slingshot rabbit, with a side of artichoke gleaned from the roadside. While the rabbit cooked we ate an entree of Holy Goat cheese, sitting across from the Holy Goat worker Tessa Sellar. Other guests include a man who grew on a sheep farm, another who wrote code for the Open Food Network , the co-author of The Weed Forager’s Handbook, as well as the brilliant son of the co-originator of permaculture. I felt McConnell and Wheeler would approve.
As I watched Oli wash the dishes I wondered : What is the future of food? Is there going to a war between vegans and meat-eaters? Is Australia’s prime agricultural land going to be used more and more for exports? Are more farmers going to commit suicide in the face of fracking? Is Steve Marsh going to win the court case? Is John Citizen aware of the links between Woolworths and problem gambling? Can a city feed itself? What would Norman Borlaug make of all this? Are developers going to build a high-rise where the asparagus once grew? Do they even grow asparagus in Rio de Janeiro or is Bushy full of shit? And, Does anyone have any chocolate?
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You Should Probably Eat Asparagus was originally published on Beacon Reader, a crowdfunded journalism website.
In 2015 I crowdfunded a book Rooted: Antipodean Food Politics through Beacon Reader, of which You Should Probably Eat Asparagus is part. A big thank you to the people who supported the project. Some chapters from the book are available for free on Beacon. I am no longer accepting pledges for the book project but you can still subscribe to me as an author by visiting https://www.beaconreader.com/sarah-coles