It's widely used but the term 'locally sourced produce' has unfortunately become a trending catchcry rather than a foundational food philosophy. Sydney based chef Brendan Cato has genuinely embraced the idea with The Farmed Table - a pop-up restaurant showcasing the best a region has to offer with all produce sourced and foraged within a 30 kilometre radius of that week's chosen NSW region.
Each week Brendan spends time meeting with producers, farmers, winemakers as well as foraging for his own produce and creates a menu based on his findings. With diners eagerly awaiting his next creation, Brendan has the benefit of deciding what he puts in front of them, a luxury any chef would envy (and a favour to the indecisive!)
This week I had a chat with Brendan about his pop-up concept, bad mushroom experiences and the importance of connecting people back with the source.
How did the concept of The Farmed Table come about?
I started by doing a couple of dinners down the south coast and used all local produce so I thought it would be pretty cool to do dinners with produce being sourced in the direct area of one spot. From there it progressed into covering several different regions and going to different places to host them.
Have you always been interested in foraging and sourcing your produce locally?
I’ve always been interested in local food and foraging - I know that it’s somewhat of a trend now but it must be about 10 years ago that I used to go up to Belanglo State Forest and go mushroom foraging, but I was quite a novice and had one bad experience but luckily I was fine! Receiving these amazing mushrooms in the restaurant made me want to go out and find them myself on my days off - that's when it all started for me.
I'm glad you made it out alive! With your novice days long gone, what does your average week look like now?
Which one! They’re all different now which is cool but in saying that, The Farmed Table is only about 30-40 percent of what I do; I'm dabbling in my own wine projects as well as catering, functions and yacht work so there's a bit of contrast! If I’m doing The Farmed Table, I generally head out to the region two days before the dinners and spend a whole day going to local producers as well as foraging for produce. We then take a big car load of produce back to the kitchen and start prepping it and getting the menu together. The next day we spend setting up the pop-up.
So you create the menu based on your findings instead of deciding it first?
Exactly - I might have an idea of a main protein source beforehand because I need to prepare for buying a large amount but as far as the vegetables and garnishes go, it’s largely based on what I find that week.
And how often does the menu change?
The menu’s never been the same, it changes every week. There might be elements that are similar but it’s always different which keeps it interesting and also pushes me to keep creating something new every week. We have quite a high return of customers so I want to keep it fresh and exciting for them too.
What are the biggest challenges of putting new ingredients on the menu every week?
Certain times of the year there’s not much produce to work with so it forces you to be creative in how you cook the food that you do find; it makes it easier and harder in that sense. I don’t have 20 or 30 different ingredients to choose from so it makes creating the menu a lot easier.
Is there something you’re trying to make people more aware of with your approach to food?
As I change the region of where I source the produce week to week, I'm trying to make people understand that whether we go to central Sydney or further out of Sydney, we can source everything from wine to olive oil to organic produce within a 20 - 30 kilometre radius of the selected region if we search hard enough. If people can understand that and aim to buy less imported goods then that's great - I'm just trying to get people to think in the right frame of mind.
Do you see more restaurants head in your direction of only sourcing local rather than imported produce?
I've definitely seen a big trend heading that way with a big push for shopping local, sustainable food and foraged ingredients - these things are quite popular on menus now, maybe because it's the 'in thing' but also because it's better for everyone. The advantage I have is that people come to me and don’t have a choice in what they eat; I have the luxury of deciding. So if I were to serve a fish that would never be served in restaurants because no one would choose it, people eat it because they don't have a choice. But often they walk away surprised at how something was cooked or happy that they tried something new.
Do you think there will ever be permanent Farmed Table restaurant?
I would like to have a restaurant one day but The Farmed Table suits what I'm doing at the moment. The restaurant scene in Sydney is terribly competitive - I think if I did have a restaurant it would be focused on that whole other side that chefs don’t get to experience - going out and spending time with the growers. We need to get chefs out of the kitchen to experience the other side of growing, which is probably the most important part of producing food. If we don’t get good product, its never going to be turned into a good dish.