As we come into Spring we spoke with Chef, Owner and Creative Director, Aaron Teece fromStudio Neon, one of Sydney’s most inspirational underground dining experiences, about the benefits of foraging, buying local and creating menus that are defined by Australian seasonality.
Following on from our adventuresbehind the gate, andmenus producedfrom restaurant gardens, Aaron highlights the connection between a restaurant and the farmer and how this relationship should be nurtured and cultivated for ultimately, a better dining experience.
Words by guest writer, Aaron Teece.
There’s always one restaurant with asparagus on the menu all-year-round. The Chef doesn’t dare take it off. Summer or Winter, it’s there – whether it’s Australian or imported from Mexico or Peru – because customers want it.
Hay smoked chicken with textures of corn, kale and dukkah spice.
Yet more and more Chefs are instead heeding the call of the seasons - what’s growing locally, what’s offered at the nearest farmers’ market, what’s sprouting in their kitchen garden or flourishing free for the picking in neighbourhood streets, is determining the menu in their restaurants.
That’s when those supple, verdant spears of asparagus start to appear on market stalls in the sub-tropical Northern Rivers NSW region. Beans, snow peas, zucchini flowers and more emerge from Winter, snapping fresh and begging to be eaten and cattle bear young destined for meat and seafood species thrive in warmer waters off the coast. Spring is a wonderful time in a restaurant.
Hawkesbury squid, Spring pea puree, Spring peas, toasted grains, seaweed powder and nasturtium leaves.
Produce that’s in season, grown and picked when it should be, tastes better. Nutritionally, it’s at its peak, big in flavour and, crucially, with a longer storage life. Fruits and vegetables available out of season have been shipped from halfway around the world or stored for long periods, losing nutrients.
There are other advantages: local produce at the height of its season is more abundant, bringing costs down. The flurry of tomato and basil dishes on menus in Summer doesn’t just happen because these ingredients taste amazing together – warm weather produces a glut that makes them cheap to use.
Instead of coming up with a dish and demanding a providore find the ingredients – and they will, at a price – Chefs like me choose to plot menus using seasonal produce we’ve actually seen and touched at a growers’ market, spread out in an inspiring riot of colours and textures. We know we are buying it from the person who grew it, that it was in the ground or on the tree just the day before, and that we are supporting Australian farmers. Through them, we gain knowledge: the farmer has no salad greens because that heat wave we griped about in the city wiped out their whole crop; the strawberry farmer has no berries because torrential rain turned fields to mud.
That connection is key, and often we take it further – visiting the farms, picking vegetables and fruit, and smelling the soil it sprang from; and those Chefs lucky enough to have a little land, a backyard or a balcony, set up kitchen gardens, nurturing fruit, vegetables and herbs from plot to plate.
Raw snapper, white peach, macadamia, finger lime and wild fennel.
As a Chef who likes to seek out free and found produce – wild weeds, fresh-caught fish, and neglected fruit from roadside trees – Spring is a busy and bountiful time in the Northern Rivers. The fields are blooming with warrigal greens, wood sorrel in all colours with their flowers, nasturtium leaves, dandelions that have finished flowering and putting energy into their tasty leaves; from the sea, cobia and kingfish still carry their delicious Winter fat, snapper is gleaming with goodness, prawns are bright and firm and Spring sea urchins are lush and creamy.
Chefs who follow the seasons and present them on the plate are doing more than feeding those who choose to dine at their tables. Subtly, dish by dish, we have the chance to educate the diner on seasonality, offering only what’s freshest and best; and if they demand asparagus in Autumn, tell them they can wait till Spring!