Brendan Cato wanders around the Minnamurra River estuary, stepping with purpose. Stopping every few metres, he crouches, inspects, and tastes, sampling a variety of the native grasses and shrubs on offer.
As he wanders, the conversation carries on without any loss of focus. Small offcuts are handed over and the range of flavours is vast: Salty. Earthy. Sour. Bitter… each individually representative of the region. This foraging session is for a two-night dinner event he is hosting to close out the week – The Farmed Table – the latest in a series of pop-up meals of his own creation, a freelance chef who epitomises the term ‘Locavore’.
Moving to Mahbrook Organic Farm in Albion Park, he drifts through the paddocks and greenhouses, filling a wheelbarrow to it’s brim. Brendan’s experience with this style of ingredient sourcing is evident as he explains what he is choosing and why. The menus for his Farmed Table pop-up events are sustainably seasonal, with foraging a key step towards crafting a lineup of dishes to reflect his regionally sourced outlook.
Rather than demanding certain flavour combinations, a degree of creativity is required as the constraints of seasonal growing inform Brendan what is ready to use. This is a common thread with his work in food – in addition to the numerous Farmed Table events each year, he has spent a considerable length of time over the years on the seas as a private chef for various superyacht owners, where the only option in creating a menu is to use what is locally available and as fresh as possible.
Catering functions and dabbling in minimal intervention winemaking complete this picture showing where Brendan’s passion lies – ensuring an increased understanding of what is used, and how it gets to the table.
His passion was fostered in regional Italy, where Brendan was a competitive road cyclist who trained with the Australian Institute of Sport in the Emilia-Romagna region. The beautiful hilly surrounds provided ample opportunity to train, while downtime was mostly spent in recovery.
In a country defined by strong regional food history, he nurtured an appetite for using the offerings of the surrounding land that was first instilled by family at their farm in Foxground, in the south of the Illawarra. Once he returned to Australia and began working in kitchens across Sydney, he developed the technical skills that now complement his philosophy.
Back in the Illawarra, Brendan hosted a couple of dinners that spawned the idea for what became The Farmed Table – dinners with produce that is sourced from the surrounding area. After the initial foray proved successful, he continued with a broadened focus, using various regions around New South Wales including the Hunter and Hawkesbury, showcasing a different side to dining where ingredients that are forgotten or lesser known get their chance to become the heroes.
The chosen venues are as important as the produce, with Mecca Coffee in Alexandria (tucked into the inner west of Sydney) and Earth Walker & Co in Coledale (on the Illawarra coast) echoing the same locally focused spotlight that drives Brendan. Earth Walker & Co not only provide local, organic and sustainable products to the Coal Coast community but have a strong hand in education around environmental and sustainable issues.
Taking over the café for two evenings, Brendan brings not just the food, but the team, the crockery, the glassware, and the drinks. A closeknit group who have worked together on multiple occasions, Brendan is relaxed as he instructs the group during prep, describing what is on the menu and where it has come from
Providing this informative level of detail will reflect back onto the majority of the diners as they inevitably ask questions over the night about what they are eating and why, and the ability of the servers to reply to each query with casually descriptive answers contributes to a warm atmosphere as everyone tucks in.
There is an effortless efficiency to service once underway. Inside Earth Walker’s tightly narrow kitchen, the mix of shared and individual dishes are plated with simplicity in mind.
Many diners are overheard swapping delight with the flavours on offer as they share wild mushrooms, cheese, jerusalem artichoke and charred cos, or the charred broccoli side shoots, beans, macadamia and bottagra. As the smoked mullet rillettes hit the tables, accompanied by finger lime, foraged sea plants and pomegranate, one table sits in gleeful silence as they eat, huge grins the only comments necessary.
With sustainable eating becoming more prominent around Australia both in commercial and home kitchens, a local and communal approach to food culture continues to grow. The more open and connected our world becomes, the more conscious we are of how we can benefit from our surroundings.
What Brendan is doing with The Farmed Table brings this idea to life in an organic way on multiple levels – leading everyone from the farmers to the diners and Brendan himself to happily feed on the fruits of community.
Brendan Cato's ‘The Farmed Table’ dinners were held on Friday 15th and Saturday 16th June 2018 with the following menu:
- Slow fermented sourdough made from kamut + spelt and cultured butter
- Wild mushrooms, Pecora ewe's milk cheese, jerusalem artichoke + cos
- Charred Mahbrook broccoli side shoots, beans, macadamia + bottagra
- Smoked mullet rillettes, native finger lime, Minnamurra sea plants + pomegranate
- Grass fed beef (18 month old), braised leek, grey ghosts + Foxground nettles
- Baked Darkes Forest apple, lavender custard
- George's beer - "Dark Voyage" + Pale ale (Austinmer)
- Ngeringa biodynamic white wine (Mt Barker, SA
- Carto shiraz "17" Minimal So2 added, no fining/filtration
Ingredients for the night were alternately foraged and sourced from within a 40km radius, adhering to Brendan's philosophy around native local ingredients.
The ingredients used from a range of local suppliers include Ewe's milk cheese, Jamberoo Mountain Blue from Pecora Dairy, located in Robertson.
- Beans, broccoli side shoots, eggplant, pomegranate, leeks, cos lettuce and chilies from Mahbrook Organics, located in Albion Park.
- Beef - Brisket, Flank and Skirt are from Maugers Meats located in Robertson.
- Mint, citrus, macas cumquats, Chinese raisins and carrots from Yarrawa Estate, located in Kangaroo Valley.
- Extra virgin olive oil from Kangaroo Valley Olives, located in Kangaroo Valley.
- Cream from South Coast Dairy.
- Finger limes from Heartwood Farm, located in Rose Valley opposite Gerringong.
- Sea mullet from Shellharbour Fish Market, located in Shellharbour.
- Jerusalem artichokes</strong> from Mum and Dads farm, located in Foxground.
- Apples and apple juice from Glenbernie Orchard, located in Darkes Forest.
- Foraged (free) ingredients from the surrounding area: Sea spray, nettles, bush lemons, pine, grey ghost mushrooms, slippery jack mushrooms.
Editor: Claire Monks
Writer: Mitch Crowle
Photog: Mitch Crowle