The other side of the fence with Jo Barrett
How Jo Barrett, one of Australia’s most ardent advocates of sustainable cuisine, came to plant herself at the Little Picket in a small town by the sea – and how her food has been heartily embraced by its community.
“When you have a true grasp of the amount of work that goes into growing, when you actually work directly with produce and understand the effort that goes into trying to create consistency and the resources involved – whether it’s water, hothouses or harvesting – you’d never, ever waste anything,” says chef Jo Barrett. True words indeed.
Sustainability advocate Barrett has adopted her minimal waste and ‘tread lightly’ ideology through committed hands-on learning around food production from the earth up; from an outdoor, free-ranging childhood, to living in a self sufficient, closed-loop house where anything consumed had to be grown on-site. It’s been quite the journey.
Modest and methodical, she’s more than a chef with a mission statement, she’s a multipotentialite; designer, farmer, baker, fly fisher, hunter, builder, cheesemaker, teacher and writer, led by curiosity, concern and the self-satisfaction of conquering the unknown. “If I don’t know how to do something, if it doesn’t make sense, I find it frustrating,” she says. “And I just really enjoy learning.”
Jo Barrett is committed to a hands-on learning around food production from the earth up.
Jo Barrett's fried king oyster mushrooms, cashew and fenugreek.
PATH TO PROVENANCE
Barrett, who grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Templestowe with a communal vegetable garden shared with neighbours, says she knew from a young age that she wanted to cook.
“I remember at about three, cutting a lemon and my neighbour’s wife showing me how to clean a knife properly. From then on, a chef is what I wanted to be.”
After finishing high school and simultaneously her first year of TAFE, she spent the second year of her apprenticeship at Melbourne institution, De Lacy Restaurant, in Niagara Lane. Then things really started cooking for her.
At 19, she won a scholarship to finish her culinary studies in Canada’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), leaving a steamy 36ºC Melbourne day and arriving to -20ºC.
“It was a shock, that’s for sure. I hadn’t really travelled before and I remember thinking, ‘I really am on my own now,’ but SAIT was incredible. They took school so much more seriously over there, teaching us charcuterie and ice carving and lard sculpting.” She also spent some time working in a classical French restaurant, Tribune, with traditional kitchen sections and staff uniform of toques and long aprons.
“It was awesome,” she says. But on her return to Australia, Barrett didn’t immediately go back to the kitchen. “I really just wanted to make sure I knew every aspect of hospitality, so if I was ever going to lead a kitchen, or have my own restaurant, that I knew what was happening out there. So, I started working front of house at a restaurant in City Square called Caboose.”
Jo Barrett's wallaby pasta.
Jo Barrett writes her menu around available local produce and changes it weekly.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The siren-song of the kitchen was too powerful to resist however. Barrett moved to MoVida, and, after upskilling with a patisserie course, MoVida Bakery (later to become Tivoli Road Bakery). Then, in 2012, she met zero-waste activist and designer Joost Bakker, at a time when she was questioning the impact hospitality was having on the environment.
“Working at different restaurants and in a bakery where you work with one ingredient specifically, like flour, and see the nuances of how it’s grown, transported, things like that – the amount of food waste just didn’t sit right with me.”
Barrett met Bakker and her (now former) partner Matt Stone at Bakker’s pop-up Greenhouse in Melbourne and found they were addressing some of the questions that had been of increasing concern to her. She went to work at Bakker’s Brothl, a zero-waste bone broth restaurant and, with Stone, subsequently worked in several of Bakker’s pop-ups.
The inside of Jo Barrett's restaurant, Little Picket, in Lorne.
Jo Barrett's bone marrow, smoked eel, radish and bread crisps recipe.
“When I met Joost, it kind of all clicked that, oh, you can actually cook ethically without the waste. And it felt really good. It didn’t feel like I was contributing to a bigger problem.”
In 2015, Barrett and Stone left Melbourne for the Yarra Valley and took up co-executive chef positions at Oakridge Wines, hyper-localising the menu with dishes from produce they could grow on-site, forage or source from Yarra Valley producers. It was then that they began discussing Future Food System with Bakker.
“It was Joost’s brainchild. Humanity had spent probably 150 years getting away from our food system and it was time to reconnect,” Barrett says. “But rather than a restaurant, it was to be our food source, a place where we would live and see how much food we could grow in a complete eco-system.”
In 2020, the 87-square metre Future Food System ‘house’ in Federation Square became a reality. Built from recycled agri-forestry wood, with walls of compressed straw, it was designed to be relocatable, sustainable, recyclable and operate as a closed loop system.
Organic waste was fermented and turned into gas for cooking, or fertiliser, and rainwater harvested and used for irrigation. An aquaponics system fed plants on waste from fish; rainbow trout and barramundi, native yabbies, and fresh water mussels. There were bees for honey and chickens for eggs and mushrooms grown on coffee grounds watered with steam from the shower.
When I met Joost, it kind of all clicked that, oh, you can actually cook ethically without the waste. And it felt really good. It didn’t feel like I was contributing to a bigger problem.
In all, Barrett says they were growing about 200 species of plants and animals, but it was what they couldn’t grow or make themselves that had the most impact.
“Because we didn’t have any meat, refined sugar, flour or dairy, my cooking became a lot cleaner and I became a lot more confident with cooking single ingredients, honing in on what we were doing at Oakridge. And it reaffirmed to me that to cook well you need to have amazing produce and that really is affected by how it’s grown.”
After Future Food and an amicable ending of her relationship with Stone, Barrett spent a subsequent six months on Flinders Island working on a cattle farm and restaurant. “When I came back I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Barrett says.
“My friend, who had worked at the bowls club in Lorne, said that they were looking for someone to take over the lease and that I could plant a farm on his property. So, I went and had a look. It was so charming, but no one had been cooking there for the last two years because of Covid. It was a place that needed some food and somewhere for the community to gather and I wanted to cook local food. So, it just came from that.”
BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES
Barrett opened Little Picket in the southern coastal town on the Great Ocean Road in August 2022, with partner David Osgood and chef friend Louise Daily. “We’ve had a great response, which has been really lovely. You know, at the start, we were pretty tempered with what we were doing and now we’ve become a bit more adventurous and people trust us.”
Barrett writes the menu weekly. Rather than deciding what she wants to make and sourcing the produce, she first consults with farmers and producers and their own garden.
“It just changes from day to day, depending on the wind or the rain or how much sun there’s been and you need to write a menu around that,” Barrett says.
Jo Barrett's beetroot galette with fromage blanc and garden herbs.
Jo Barrett opened her restaurant, Little Picket, in Lorne in August 2022.
“We have a lot of information coming in on a daily basis. We use Kinsfolk, which is a local organic farm, who send me a message at the start of the week saying ‘this is what we’re going pick this week, what would you like? Then we co-farm at a place in Jan Juc, which is 15 minutes from us and pick from another person’s garden up in Dean’s Marsh. I get the fisherman’s report of what they’re catching and there might be someone slaughtering lambs. And then we might see what’s growing here. Then we hand-write a menu; probably six or seven entrees, four main courses and three desserts, plus a couple of sides.”
Not only is writing the menu around available local produce and picking it themselves better for the environment, it also cuts out packaging and waste. Barrett concedes, however, that it’s a way of working that may not be financially viable for everyone.
“We are only open for three services, and two days of the week we’re going to farms, picking produce and writing the menu. So, there’s no money coming in those days. I’m not sure if it wasn’t such a small team and you know, that we’re in a bowls club, that we could do it.”
In addition to minimising packaging and food miles, any organic waste from the restaurant is composted and used on Little Picket’s herb and vegetable garden. Barrett also uses an ‘e-water’ system using reverse osmosis to separate the molecules in salt water brine to create a natural detergent and cleaner.
“We wash the floors and all the benches with it,” Barrett says. “There’s no point in having beautiful organic produce and then adding chemicals.” On the subject of produce, Barrett is broadly concerned about the loss of skill in hospitality around its handling.
“It’s frustrating. I feel like we get away with kind of crappy standards with our cooking sometimes, when it’s a chef’s job is to know how to cook seasonal produce. I think it’s probably a bit of a lack of training. We need to learn how to cook properly, to know what to do with produce in season and stop buying stuff out of season because it’s convenient and that’s the only thing you know how to cook.”
Jo Barrett's Chamomile crème caramel.
Jo Barrett's kitchen at the Little Picket in Lorne Bowls Club.
HAVING A GO
Barrett’s not just talking about restaurants though; in between menu writing, farming, surfing and learning new skills such as archery or deerstalking, Barrett has been teaching kitchen self-sufficiency skills to the public through her self-published magazine series Have a Go, demystifying subjects from sourdough making to salami.
She also has a book coming out in September called Sustain. Along with recipes, there are “skill builders” like capturing abundance, building a pantry using alternative ingredients, fermenting, bottling, and preserving.
“All things which will help your nutrition as well. The idea is that if you learn those skills, you can lead a more sustainable life and you don’t necessarily need to live on a farm or grow the food. And then there’s a few other projects that we’re working on with native foods and wild foods that we hope to release probably mid-year or later in the year.”
For Barrett, the solution to the issues that have plagued her since she first stepped into the kitchen have become clearer with time and experience.
“I think Future Food System taught me that it all relates back to food in the end. I think people reprioritising food, reconnecting with their food system, learning how to use produce, being led by farmers and eating healthily could have a massive impact on our climate.”