I once trained as a chef. Straight from high school, I was thrust into the hard, buzzing, exhilarating world of working in restaurants. Brutal hours, even more, brutal chefs. I found myself in a subculture of those who thrive on hard work and hard living, inhabited by hospitality vampires; those strange nocturnal creatures who break most of the societal norms. For a while I couldn’t believe I was being paid to cook; to hang around in the hotbed of the commercial kitchen where food is transformed in the hours, minutes, then seconds before being delivered to customers. And then, after I burnt out a couple of times, I couldn’t believe I’d chosen to become a chef, surrounded by people who seemed to have criminal intent, focused either on each other or on the food.
By that time, however, I’d fallen in love with restaurants from the diner’s side, and was haemorrhaging money on an addiction to eating out. I needed to subsidise my hobby, and so I set out to become a food writer, a process that took a good few years. Eventually, I became a food critic, paid to eat at the best restaurants around NSW and around the country.
Our farm is really just a glorified pantry. But the message we want to get out there is that good food isn’t just for birthdays and Christmas. It’s for everybody and everyday.
But now, at age 51, I’m a chef again. This time, though, it’s our family business that I lead in the kitchen. And this time, the cooking is about as far from the usual style restaurant, the sort that I once worked in, as you can get.
Fat Pig Farm is a working farm. We don’t pretend to be the best farmers in the world. We aren’t trying to be the fanciest dining room, with the poshest food. What we are is an example of one place, doing one style of food, in the southern most shire of Australia, the Huon Valley. We’re trying to give diners a one-off taste of the seasons, of our geography, with a long table farmhouse meal driven by what’s good in the garden and what the paddocks have gifted us on that particular week. What we are is the logical conclusion of the seemingly clichéd ‘paddock to plate’ movement. What we serve doesn’t come from some distant paddock though. Most if it, about 90-95% of it if we’re doing our job right, comes from the paddock outside the window.
How did it come to this? Well, Sadie, my partner, and I fell in love with growing things. I’d been fascinated by flavour, and the way things are grown and what an impact the people involved in the process can have. Relatively quickly, however, an ambition to have three chooks and a veggie garden was usurped by the chance to own a hobby farm. The three chooks became ten. The paddocks were graced by sheep for our own meat, a dairy cow for milk, butter and fresh cheese, and the best place on the property for a garden was taken over by two pigs.
Eight years later and the dream has grown. So has the farm. We’re now at a bigger place, 70 acres in total, with two milking cows, 720 metres of garden beds run on organic principles, a heritage orchard, a couple of handfuls of chooks, a beef herd, a mini food forest, an olive grove, and 35 pigs. What we are is an oversize hobby farm, where the surfeit of food for our own table spills over to the long table lunches we host on the farm each Friday.
So while I trained as a chef, did an apprenticeship and all, I now wear many hats. I manage everything farm-y outside of the garden (the incredible Nadia Danti manages the garden itself, alone a more-than-full-time job). That involves milking cows, moving livestock, and feeding pigs as well as trying to maintain the farm and all that involves. Inside, Sadie runs the front of house, the correspondence, managing the website, organising private events, and she plays the consummate host. I run the commercial kitchen, with an incredibly talented team who really get what true seasonality means when it comes to the plate. I teach cooking at our occasional classes, often garden-based courses (and sometimes dairy or pig-themed), which culminate in a slap up meal that the guests have helped, in part, to create. I write. I occasionally film for television. I bang on about sustainability and provenance, and flavour and ethics when I can get an audience.
Our goal each week is to make people happy. Growing, cooking, and serving food are noble arts.
And all of this is so I – and you – can eat well. Essentially, I’m a glutton. Our farm is really just a glorified pantry. But the message we want to get out there is that good food isn’t just for birthdays and Christmas. It’s for everybody and everyday. It doesn’t have to be posh – it could be as humble as a spud, or as noble as a truffle. Good food is possible on most budgets if you have the skills in the kitchen (though it certainly helps if you’ve access to fresh, seasonal, locally grown food, too). Good food is easier if you’ve got a pot with herbs in it. You don’t have to milk your own cow. You don’t have to fatten pigs. But if you can care a little more about what you put in your mouth, and possibly even know the person who did grow it for you, then you’ll be the beneficiary in more ways than one.
Ours is a rarefied world where we bake our own bread in the wood oven, culture cream for our own butter, harvest the vegetables as close to the time you eat them as possible. It takes most of our waking hours, all of our energy, and any resources we can inject. It’s a working farm, where we’re often two years behind on some of the projects, guests are always expected to get mud on their boots, and there’s no finish line, only the promise of a new day tomorrow.
Our goal each week is to make people happy. Growing, cooking, and serving food are noble arts; the original alchemy where sunlight, soil, water and air are transformed into fuel for our bodies. When that fuel tastes delicious, comes with a glass of local pinot noir, and somebody else does the washing up, then we think that’s even better.