After working at Melbourne restaurant Coda for just over a year, Simone Watts decided to leave the city and work on a farm.
“It was a little bit of a personal journey – going into farm work to become a little bit more mindful of … how our produce is grown, harvested or bred,” Watts says.
She is putting on a two-night dinner series at Montalto on the Mornington Peninsula (one of which has already sold out) with a menu that uses products from four different farms around the region: biodynamic vegetables from Transition Farm; organic meats from Woolumbi Farm; cheese from Main Ridge Dairy; and wine from Montalto.
Rather than paying money for the food Watts volunteered her time and labour at the farms – three months in all.
“I have a lot respect for people who have the guts to be a farmer,” she says. “It’s nice to get your hands dirty and do something different each day. I pick up a broccoli at the supermarket now and I think: someone has broken their back weeding for you.”
As well as the opportunity to showcase the farms’ produce, Watts wanted to ensure they also had a say about the menu. “I asked them: what is it you’re most proud of at this time of year? What is it you want your local community to be tasting?”
The goal of the dinner is simple: get diners excited about the area they live in and possibly make them reconsider their trip to the big chain supermarkets.
“You’ve got award-winning wines, cheese, small goods, you’re surrounded by ocean with plentiful sustainable seafood,” Watts says.
She hopes to translate her own experiences on the farm by having “sexy, simple produce without much done to it” while also being on hand to explain the stories behind it. The menu has been created in collaboration with Montalto’s head chef, Gerard Phelan.
“The reason I chose this time of year is it is the most produce-rich,” Watts explains. “It’s an exhalation of the earth; it’s the end of summer and the start of autumn, so you’ve got this cross-parallel of late-harvest tomatoes coming in and then your pumpkins coming in in autumn … You have all this exciting produce that’s all in its prime.”
The dinner will be set around a big, shared table – intimate enough that diners can talk among themselves. After the Peninsula event, Watts wants to take the dinner series to other parts of the country.
“It’s been personally rewarding and a great experience to take some time off from that gung-ho, name-in-lights, cheffing world,” she says. “Melbourne is so trend-driven and this has been a simple, humble experience that’s all about seasonal, beautiful produce.”
Seed to Plate is taking place at Montalto, 33 Shoreham Road, Red Hill South on Wednesday March 22 with a 6.30pm arrival for a 7pm start. The price is $180 for a five-course dinner with paired wines. Book a ticket here.