The Producers: Ep 1
The Feast: Smolt, The Producers • October 8, 2014
Tasmanian chef Scott Heffernan steps out of his hot Hobart kitchen to meet some of the friendly local farmers who grow and rear the high-quality fresh produce used in his restaurant
As featured in Virgin Blue 'Voyeur' magazine. Edited by Jen Heffernan, Photography by Andrew Wilson of Everything Everything.
As head chef at Smolt restaurant in Hobart, Tasmania, I am passionate about the island I call home – both its people and its great produce. At 32 years of age I have been in the hospitality industry for over a decade. I trained in my hometown of Hobart then worked in some of Melbourne’s top restaurants. While we were blessed with high-quality ingredients in the big smoke, when it came to fresh produce, I always thought we did things better back home in Tassie.
Years ago, Tasmania’s rich fertile soils and crystal clear waters were local secrets but thanks to our passionate producers creating world-class products, I am happy to say that the cat is officially out of the bag. To find out why Tasmanian producers are among the best in the world, I decided to visit some of the local farmers from whom I source my produce for the restaurant and ask them what it’s all about. As it turns out, it’s about passion, hard work, more passion, and making the time to have a nice long chat with close friends.
After working a week of 14-hour shifts slaving away in a hot kitchen, getting out of bed at 7am on my day off feels like hard work. But I know that the farmer I am meeting this morning has most likely already been up for a few hours so I don’t complain too much. It’s a gorgeous day for our drive south of Hobart to the home of Nicholls Rivulet Organic Beef, which is located just east of Cygnet.
This is a story of true love, between farmer Gerard Crochen his 100-hectare property in the district’s rolling hills. Crochen is passionate about all things organic and, for a chef like me, that translates into one thing – flavour.
Crochen and his partner Deb relocated to Tasmania from New South Wales and Crochen says that the island’s predictable seasons are a blessing to a farmer who was used to long dry periods. As we tour his farm it’s clear that his knowledge of organic and sustainable farming, like his generosity, is limitless. We hike uphill
to the back paddock and eventually find around 30 cattle lazily strolling and munching along a shady patch of grass.
Crochen is committed to the task of trying to rear the happiest animals on the planet and I get the feeling that these cows know they are onto a good thing. They roam over the 20 paddocks which are nourished only by homemade compost. His enthusiasm is contagious and as I (willingly) poke my hand into a steaming mass of compost, I start to realise how much effort and care goes into creating the perfect pasture for these beautiful animals.
Crochen isn’t a fan of machinery and works on the farm by himself, seven days a week, although admits he’ll have to buy a tractor one day. He has a simple philosophy – what you put into the land is reflected in the flavour of the product.
I met Kevin Baker a few years ago at the local stock yards. At the time he was the only one who would give a new chef like me a helping hand to understand the finer points of buying good quality livestock. His property, Maccelslie Park in Sorell, is 20 minutes drive north-east of Hobart. Kevin produces between 800 and 1,000 porkers (yes, this is a technical term) per year. He has been farming pigs since 1986 and is now struggling to keep up with demand as his reputation as one of Tasmania’s best pork producers keeps growing.
It’s midmorning when we arrive at Baker’s property and he is busy fixing a broken disc on his plough. He rears mostly Berkshire or Berkshire-cross pigs for their flavour and gentle temperaments. This is a pig’s paradise – the roaming sows are free to exercise as much or as little as they like but sometimes take this liberty a little too far and escape the paddocks to turn up on Baker’s doorstep. We wander out to see the newest arrivals which are being born as we chat. The new mum has already given birth to 12 piglets, and by the time we leave she’s up to 14 healthy babies that are nestled into the warm earth and happily suckling – quite a sight for a first timer like me.
Baker’s produce is some of the best I’ve worked with. A healthy diet, including lots of milk and fresh air, means that the pigs are not only happy but a healthy, plump size. This results in incredibly succulent meat that is rich in flavour – leaving many of my customers wondering what his secret is. I have to admit, it’s so good I always have trouble deciding which of his pork cuts is best. So I just buy the whole pig to take back to the kitchen.
Our last stop is Phillip Lamb’s Spring Bay Seafoods at picturesque Triabunna, about an hour north-east of Hobart.
Spring Bay Seafoods’ beautiful mussels are a staple ingredient in the Smolt kitchen. I love the versatility of mussels – I use them to make everything from paella, to a creamy risotto or just lightly grilled with a little chorizo crumb.
Touring around Spring Bay Seafoods with Lamb, I remind myself of just how lucky I am to have a world class mussel hatchery and farm within driving distance of my restaurant that can deliver produce to me on the same day it is harvested. Lamb’s eyes light up when he shows us the laboratory where the process starts.
Spring Bay Seafoods breeds its own spat (which is technical speak for baby mussels), making it a unique operation and a world leader in the mussel growing industry.
Lamb is understandably proud of what his operation has achieved with very little environmental impact.
He explains that adult mussels can filter 60 litres of water per day, females are prettier than the males (girls are orange, boys are white) and they like to hang out on hairy ropes. The mussels attach themselves to the ropes and are then lowered about 20 to 30 metres into clean, nutrient-rich Tasmanian waters.
All in all, it’s been a successful day. To see and understand where your produce comes from is essential for a professional chef. It’s all about building trust and understanding with my producers. That way I can be sure that what I put on the plate is of the highest quality and they can be sure that the customers are tasting their produce at its best. A happy farmer means happy animals, which means a happy chef and, more importantly, happy customers.