Words by Eliesha Rae. Photos by Will James.
While patrons of even the most suburban cafes in the city have had time to wrap their heads around beef tartare for lunch, or knowing that the unnecessarily fancily named croque monsieur is a ham and cheese toastie, our country cousins have had a reputation for being a bit slower to the table (pun intended). It takes time to convince the masses that “smashed avo” is no longer the dish du jour and the local kitchen maestros must be forgiven for catering to the lower common denominator.
Not so at Tuki, however. Newly appointed chef Benjamin O’Brien, who cites his inspirations as Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse fame) and French born Raymond Blanc, has his ear to the ground, his eyes peeled and his tastebuds keened for the latest and greatest in seasonality, sustainability and sensational sustenance.
“There is a lot more interest in food and cooking (in recent years), it has become a real spectator sport, lots of media on it. There is more diversity in our habits and greater self-awareness, but a sad general ineptitude when it comes to actually making ourselves food and a huge dependence on packaging and labels to tell us what things are… try buying swede at a checkout!” laments O’Brien.
Tuki is a special place, situated on the historic “Stoney Rises”, the property is a traditional grazing property; the woolshed, miner’s cottage and stable restaurant are all original buildings. The area has been consistently farmed for 150 years. When the owners, Robert and Jan first opened the farm to the public in 1985, the property was home to Australia’s largest commercial flock of Tukidale sheep – hence the name ‘Tuki’.
Robert and Jan did all the cooking themselves for the first 30 years at Tuki and they are now embracing the opportunity to collaborate with a chef who shares their passion and values.
“The food culture in our area is changing as people realise what a magnificent food bowl Victoria is,” says Jan, “the café culture in Ballarat is blossoming and there are some really interesting multicultural restaurants reflecting the population shift. Our chef, Benjamin O’Brien is amazing, with such a broad knowledge base… he has added a creative flair (while continuing to use) our farm produce.”
The trout that stock the ponds are reared on the property and the good quality water they live in contributes to the flavour. The lamb and beef products on the menu come from Tuki’s own flock and their vegetable garden continues to expand exponentially!
“From the pond to the pan and from the paddock to the plate”, is Robert and Jan’s philosophy. “Our signature dish is our trout served bone free by Robert. This is usually caught by the guests, so it has more meaning to them. Then we prepare it and cook it and serve it bone free at their table.” Yum.
Anything that is not home grown comes from a variety of amazing local producers and suppliers – Country Style Smallgoods, Basilo Sourdough Bread, Powlett Hill Organics, Meredith Cheese, Mt Franklin Organics, Farmers Larder, Angelina Organics, Wombat Organics, Holy Goat, Mt Coghill Winery, the list goes on!
As we all (hopefully) know, food comes from the country! You’ll be hard pressed to find an organic pasture in the Bourke Street Mall, and it’s about time that more of us started taking advantage of the amazing array of produce that our local area has to offer.
Even on their respective nights off, the Tuki team love to keep it local. O’Brien recommends Le Peche Gourmand and the Famers Arms in Creswick, and believes Vegas and Rose to be Ballarat’s best kept secret, while Jan and Robert love a night out at Craig’s Royal Hotel in Ballarat and second Creswick’s own Le Peche Gourmand. “The fabulous cakes are to die for!” says Jan.
Hopefully, if you’ve read the beginning of this article and haven’t just started randomly at word 650, this is already becoming obvious, but it’s always worth mentioning in so many words - the team at Tuki are passionate about “food as nutrition, organic farming and regional food”. Robert is a farmer and Jan has a background in allied health and they are both zealous about ground up cooking and seasonal produce.
“Processed food is a blight on society and those who make it a large portion of their diet will suffer…” Jan insists, “eating as close to nature as possible for good health is (the) goal, but also quite a challenge. Families have moved from having all their meals prepared at home to being surrounded by fast options.”
Things seem to be moving in the opposite direction at Tuki, however. The entire squad at Tuki are keen for locals to get back to basics.
A colander, sharp knife, good tongs, wooden chopping block and mortar & pestle are all Chef O’Brien recommends as the absolute essentials for a home kitchen; while owner Jan doesn’t believe you can live without “a good stock pot and solid roasting dishes”. And as long as they have “coconut oil, good olive oil and Meredith Feta” in their pantry, Robert and Jan are happy campers.
Their son Alistair is passionate about organic farming and has done formal training on organic practices and these learnings have become best practice at Stoney Rises over the last 10 years.
“Fresh ingredients, particularly vegetables, have less nutrients than 30 years ago due to the way we have been farming, we should take organic and biodynamic seriously,” comments O’Brien.
“The last five years has seen a real shift and now our guests seem to really care where their food is grown and how it is grown.”
“Certainly our customers are telling us that they are more aware of food miles and love eating our wonderful local produce.
We have removed some processed ingredients from our menu and we are happy to embrace food fashions, especially when they are positive!” adds Jan.
“We use what we produce and buy what is available,” continues O’Brien, “food trends keep it interesting, but they move in cycles, like clothing. We are happy to see ferments coming into vogue and an interest in bone broths and self-sufficiency – it puts farming into perspective for people who may be out of touch with the land.”
“We roll with the seasons, lots of different kale varieties, nettles, lemons and great beef this year on the farm!”
“We try to be as seasonal as possible,” agrees Jan, “so at present we have lots of winter vegetables on the menu - the swedes and parsnips this year are great.”
A typical day at Tuki includes collecting eggs from the chooks, feeding trout, checking stock, lots of cooking and hopefully a little bit of fun!
“We often experiment in the kitchen, with the family being the taste lab! Robert’s slow cooked native pasture fed lamb is our latest hit. The good things are enjoyed by us and any failures are enjoyed by the chooks!”
And while O’Brien would invite Fergus Henderson & David Chang to cook at his fantasy dinner party (even as David Attenborough narrates the event!!), Jan and Robert cite their dream night as “our chef Benjamin O’Brien cooking up a storm, starting off with some bone broth and miso, followed by lamb racks and seasonal vegetables and then his amazing chocolate frangipani tart with pears.”
If this is the kind of thing we can be expecting on the upcoming Tuki menu, we can guarantee at least one table full. We’ll be there in a heartbeat.
Tuki Restaurant is open daily from 11am til 6pm or at other times by arrangement. The restaurant and trout farm are available for events and functions.
Visit www.tuki.com.au for more details.