A few weeks ago, I was invited (along with 7 other food bloggers) to participate in designing a dish to showcase Australian beef in a degustation dinner at Warren Turnbull's restaurant Assiette. I'll admit to feeling apprehensive at first. I was excited, a little shocked, and I wasn't sure what to expect or whether I'd be able to juggle yet another commitment. In the end I agreed of course. Who in their right mind would turn down an opportunity to coordinate a dish with one of Sydney's top chefs?
The concept of the dinner sponsored by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), is from 'paddock to plate' and the recipe that I spent last weekend tinkering with was a very simple, unadulterated one. Seared sirloin with butter-poached veg, pickled celery, horseradish and dashi.
I'm no master chef so it'll be interesting to see how Warren transforms my idea into something restaurant-worthy. If I could fish my hat out of the washing machine, I'd put it on and take it off to him. I have no idea how he designs such visually aesthetic dishes at his restaurant. As a chef, I find working with the components and constraints of someone else's recipe much easier. When let loose with no limitations how does one decide which direction to go in? I only spent a week in the library, poring over ancient cookery books and pulling my hair out, searching for some form of inspiration, yet this is something that Warren does on a regular, seasonal basis!
This upcoming event is both exciting and nerve-wracking. The guestlist includes Alison McIntosh, championed cattle producer; Anthony Puharich of Vic's Meat (leading national supplier) and Victor Churchill (possibly the best butcher shop in the entire Southern Hemisphere); and of course, a handful of wonderful people from MLA and Hausmann.
Having worked for Kylie Kwong who is a firm advocate of organic and biodynamic produce, I'm familiar with the ways in which chefs and suppliers approach the issue of food sustainability. Sydney Fish Market, for example, will not facilitate the sale of unsustainable seafood such as bluefin tuna, which has been overfished to such an extent that it is now classified as an endangered species.
Warren says: "Chefs are, and have always been, very resourceful in using every single last bit of produce they bring to the kitchen," which in isolation may not seem like much, but is in fact incredibly important. I visited a dairy farm this morning and learned that to feed the 2,000 resident Jersey cows, it takes over 20,000 acres of land. Imagine if everyone in Australia only ate steaks. Now imagine the waste it would create. Farmers would have to keep up with demand by increasing productivity through more intensive farming practices.
There are a few debates centred around beef - free-range versus non-grazing, grass-fed versus grain, etc. Interestingly, 3% of plants worldwide exhibit C4 photosynthesis which in layman's terms, means that they transpire less water and are more effective than other plants in carbon sequestration. Roughly half are grasses (including maize, millet, and sorghum) and contribute to 20-25% of primary production. So in a sense, by choosing locally produced grass-fed beef (over grain-fed), we're encouraging farmers to maintain agricultural carbon sinks in Australia.
I don't know much about the beef industry so I shot Alison a few questions to find out more:
1. What is your view of food sustainability in Australia - Is sustainable agriculture something that we should be concerned with?
Yes, we definitely need to be concerned with food sustainability and food security, which is, of course, directly related to sustainable agriculture. As an Australian farming family, our livelihood and our future depends on the sustainability of our farm. For us, sustainable agriculture means that we are able to produce good quality wholesome food for which we are paid a fair price, which in turn enables us to invest in improving the health of the environment on and around our farm. With sustainable agriculture, we will be able to have food sustainability and provide food security for Australians, and overseas markets. The Australian beef industry exports around two thirds of all beef produced - our markets want a safe, healthy product that has been produced in a healthy environment. With issues of climate change we need to be continually looking for more efficient systems of farming.2. Have your views influenced the way your business operates?
Yes, we are certainly concerned with land sustainability and how we farm, this has evolved into the way we produce our cattle, and practices on farm have certainly changed a lot from the time my grandfather and great grandfather farmed here. For us, it's all about producing the highest quality beef that we can, naturally and sustainably, while maintaining and looking after our land. We also try to remain very much in touch with what our consumers and the market are wanting - and that is healthy food!!!3. Are there any aspects that could be improved upon for the industry in general to become more sustainable? What are the obstacles?
Yes, our agricultural industries certainly have challenges ahead, and scientists and industry are continually working on these issues, but we certainly need to look at climate change, water efficiency and the like. Farmers are managers of Australia's land and we are producers of world food - it's a big job and a big responsibility - and we certainly need to be continually improving. There are so many variables and unknowns we face working in agriculture and these will always be our biggest challenges - climate, seasons, consumer demands, competition from other products, economy, cost of production and a whole lot more.4. What can the average consumer do to support positive change in the industry?
The average consumer can be more aware of the food products they are buying, and can support Australian produce, by buying local produce. With this support farmers will be in a better position to continue to adopt change and meet the needs of the market. Just by understanding and educating themselves about Australian agriculture and food production I think consumers are better able to relate and understand how farmers produce food.
I think more should be taught in schools so that Australian children grow up knowing 'where their food comes from' and more about the systems that are used to produce it. Urban children particularly I think are unaware of agricultural systems and food production - they need to know that beef doesn't come from a pack.......!!5. What is your favourite way(s) to enjoy beef?
For me, I don't think you can beat a good sirloin steak, cooked just to medium on the BBQ, with a little mustard and a good green leaf salad!
All eight blogger dishes will be revealed at dinner this coming Monday night so stay tuned to find out more. For the moment, Alison's words provide us with a concept that we could all do well by mulling over for a while. To propagate change we need to invest in what we believe, and support those who are the backbone of the movement towards a better future.