A DAY IN THE KITCHEN – Topiary
Topiary is located at Newman’s Nursery in Tea Tree Gully and is owned by husband and wife team Kane and Adele Pollard. Kane is Head Chef and Adele runs front of house. It’s somewhere I’ve eaten many times and one of my favourite dining spots, so I was excited to be spending a day in the kitchen.
My day starts at 8:30am – it’s a cold morning (three degrees) and Kane immediately suggests that we go on a forage of the nearby micro-climates, each offering different edible plants. Lucky I brought a jacket and was wearing waterproof boots (yes, I do own one pair of practical shoes)! Kane’s equipped with plastic containers and scissors and as we walk, he’s telling me about the things he collects, including nasturtium, wood sorrel, watercress, rosemary, wild fennel and tangier pea shoots.
As well as getting advice from the local gardeners, he knows what’s edible by continually reading up on weed foraging. He says that many delicious things often look ugly or boring and so he’s always interested in seeing what he can do with them to bring flavour and texture to dishes. He also likes using certain plants to beautify other dish components – one example being his carp croquette – seemingly unattractive, but wrap it in a blanched nasturtium leaf and it becomes a thing of beauty, as well as being a textural element.
He doesn’t generally head out to find anything specific, he simply wanders about and sees what’s out there on any given day and gets inspiration for his dishes. And he uses these plants in all sorts of ways. For example, wild onion, also known as ‘three cornered garlic’ – the team will use it fresh, grilled and pickled, they’ll make oil and use the flowers for garnish.
Kane’s mind is always ticking over with ideas and even keeps a notebook next to the bed for when he wakes in middle of the night. But, he admits he still has a lot to learn – constantly researching and on the lookout for new plants. He’s currently keen to learn more about pine trees, recently found out there’s a layer between the bark and the wood that you can make gluten-free flour from.
Kane explains that Topiary is run in a similar way to how a household would have been run 100 years ago – sourcing everything locally, make things from scratch, using whole animals and minimising waste, supporting those around you and respecting the environment. Nice.
So it’s back to the kitchen to thaw out. Today the team consists of Alex, Leigh and Anthony (who bears more than an uncanny resemblance to Australian actor Rodger Corser). The other team member is Ash who’s on leave. They’re all long-serving, being at Topiary for between four to over seven years – that’s got to say something about Kane and the work environment.
Everyone knows the ins and outs of every dish and they rotate sections every two weeks – breakfast, lunch and dinner, but they work to their strengths and swap between cooking and prep. This morning, Leigh’s on breakfast service, Kane’s coordinating and on the pass, and Alex and Anthony are in the second kitchen area doing prep. I got to watch Kane plating up– an artist at work. So much care and attention to detail.
After aproning-up, my first task is to separate out the foraged weeds into containers. Next I need to sort through a crate of beetroot leaves – pull out the ones that are the right size and quality to be deep fried and used as part of the ‘Deer and Beetroot Parts’ dish. Kane kept me on the venison dish track, getting me to peel roasted beetroots and then, in batches, briefly blitz them in the Thermomix. I’ve never used Thermomix before so it was a bit of a novelty – it only took 1.5 seconds to get it to the right consistency. Next, finely chop capers. The beetroot was then mixed with the capers, onion and mustard and then I had the job of weighing up bags of 300 grams to be sealed. Concurrently, Anthony was busy dicing the venison.
With a commitment to minimal waste they buy in whole animals one to two weeks ahead and process the entire thing. The tender cuts are trimmed and vacuum sealed. Other cuts are brined, sous vide and smoked. Bellies are pressed, cooked confit and used within the week. Pork skin is used for the out-of-this-world crackling butter and they also work with the local Gully Meat Services down the road using the back fat to make kranskies and other sausages.
One of Topiary’s signature dishes ‘Lamb in the Weeds’ is a fine example of the ethos of using the whole animal – the lamb component is pressed neck meat and the weeds change depending on what’s available on the forage. They continue to work towards zero waste and currently produce only one household-sized red-lidded bin of landfill per week – that’s impressive!
Most things are used in multiple ways. A huge tray of confit garlic will be used for breakfast dishes but also to make garlic oil and various emulsions. Making things from scratch and foraging has the benefit of keeping food costs low, however it does result in higher labour costs.
I spent what time I had left getting down and dirty filleting garfish. I’d never filleted a fish in my life and I’m told by everyone in the kitchen that garfish is probably the most difficult. I can’t say I was very good at it, in fact, I’d say it was a FAIL, despite Alex’s excellent demonstration, patient tutoring, and words of encouragement.
I asked Alex and Leigh what they particularly love about working at Topiary. Alex loves the creativity it allows and the way they come up with new ideas for dishes, or even a dish element which might then spark an idea for a dish. He also likes that they support local businesses and sustainable practices, and that he’s always learning. Leigh also appreciates the freedom to be creative – if there’s a good idea it can make it onto the menu. More recently they’ve been having weekly catch ups to discuss their new ideas and how they might tweak things.
When it came time for lunch, we had it ‘kitchen style’ – bowls of soup cooked by Anthony, consumed sitting on milk crates in a circle in the kitchen.
What I really noticed this day was a real sense of calm amongst the team. Admittedly, it wasn’t a hugely busy day for service but everything seemed to run extremely smoothly. It almost made me want to work in a kitchen, as I love to do prep stuff and be organised at home when I cook.
All in all, my day in the Topiary kitchen was both fun and educational, and I got to hang out with a great bunch of passionate people. Big thanks to Kane, Adele and the team.