For the Popla Bellingen team Claire van Vuuren and Mitch Grady, making green choices has been a “goes without saying” ethos for their entire careers in hospitality, rather than something they feel comfortable with highlighting as a selling point. Knowing this, we still wanted to catch up with Claire, the restaurant’s co-head chef, to see if we could find out a little more detail…
Claire: In terms of being green, I think it’s the duty of every contemporary restaurant. It’s a hard question because I don’t think what we do is anything special – it’s a normal part of our operation. Basic things such as returning boxes, not using produce that’s been pre-packed… We also don’t use cryovac machines – many contemporary kitchens do sous-vide but I find it quite wasteful with all the packaging. It basically means the meat comes out of plastic then goes into more plastic to be cooked sous-vide.
Popla doesn’t really make that much waste. We use re-washable handtowels, linen napkins, we try and avoid too much plastic, no straws. We try and limit glass bottles as much as possible so we only use beers in tins or on tap – unfortunately the wine industry hasn’t caught up to that yet but some exciting research is happening into it.
What about your fit-out for 2 Oak Street? We heard that was done with a strong sense of sustainability in mind.
Claire: We tried to do things such as restore the timber furniture, reupholster furniture that was already there, Dowel Jones used reclaimed rubber into forming the plastic bit of our seats – they’re a very exciting company that’s taking great steps with reclaimed materials. Matt Woods, our interior designer, always does things with materials that are recycled and reused. That’s pretty essential in this industry because businesses and restaurants can close down so frequently.
He recently did an interview where he talked about how he is increasingly designing with the end of a venue’s life and its deconstruction in mind. And even if it doesn’t shut down, and just wants to revamp, it can be deconstructed with minimal waste.
And what about food miles?
Claire: One of the chief reasons we decided to mill our own flour is to spare food miles, as well as we avoiding packaging. At the moment Mitch Grady (Popla’s co-head chef) is milling Australian whole rye and whole wheat grain. We mill it for everything like breads, cakes and pasta.
In terms of food miles generally, it’s pretty simple really, it’s all about avoiding freight, fuel that’s used in all that freight, traffic and the pollution that brings – everything is all tied back into it.
As a chef can you tell us a bit about your commitment to using the whole animal?
Claire: It goes back into supporting the industry. If an animal only has two of a certain cut that everyone wants, that animal is still killed, everyone gets their cut and the price of the rest of that animal drops to the point that the farmer is forced to waste that and send it off for dog food or something like that.
As chefs you’ve got to be certain that you treat every animal with respect and using all the secondary cuts, its organs – everything. Because otherwise the industry relies on these prime cuts. That said, right now it has flipped a bit because everybody wants secondary cuts because they’re trendy so the prices of those have gone up, but it’s still about being versatile.
If you’re committing to eat an animal, it’s about committing to eat the entire thing. That also includes the bones for things like stock, and with the fat, we render our beef fat and that goes into our spätzle dumpling. So instead of getting that extra flavour by adding butter or eggs or milk, we add the rendered fat that would just be going into the bin normally.
And what about preserving and pickling?
Claire: Marmalade or preserves or pickles are a great way to get longevity out of fruit and vegetables beyond their particular season. It’s really satisfying as a chef to get a huge box of something while it’s at its peak season and see it last over the rest of the year. For example with quince, wherever you see slabs of quince you immediately start making quince paste while you can get it. I suppose some people could claim that’s being green – but I think it’s just being normal!
Do you guys get to make the most of the surplus of in-season produce that’s up here in Bello?
Claire: Definitely. Bellingen is just inundated with citrus in citrus season, so rather than having it rotting on the ground, we’re very lucky to have customers give us their oversupply in buckets and it goes into the cocktails, we use it in cordials, zest, everything. It’s really nice – lots of people have dropped off their citrus to us.
You guys mentioned in a recent interview that this region is pretty impressive with the way locals are engaged with fresh food and what’s in season.
Claire: Yes – locals here are engaged and they’re also likely to be growing some of their own vegetables, so they automatically know what’s in season because they’re planting and watching the weather, the sun, the soil. It’s something they’ve grown up with. For us, watching what comes into season in this subtropical area is new and exciting, it’s like learning another language, because every region is slightly different. It’s really nice and wholesome and connecting, as opposed to just picking something off a list.
As part of its commitment to showcasing the very best ingredients of the region and the hard work and passion of food growers and producers, Popla Bellingen is this month launching monthly “Meet The Producer” dinners. The first event, on 28 September, will feature Troy Blackman from Waterfall Produce. Find out more and reserve your spot here .