“I never set out to be ‘the sustainable chef’,” Jo Barrett says.
In 2006, the eco-cooking advocate was a wide-eyed apprentice taking her first steps towards Australia’s burgeoning zero-waste movement. Now, in 2023, Barrett is at the forefront with her debut book Sustain: Groundbreaking Recipes and Skills That Could Save the Planet. It’s a 274-page bible dedicated to cooking and eating more consciously that proves a lot can happen in 17 years.
Barrett climbed the ranks with an innate curiosity. And the kind of respect for produce and provenance that had her asking “where’s the rest?” when confronted with a box full of chicken breasts. Working at Frank Camorra’s Movida Bakery in Melbourne in the early 2010s as it became Tivoli Road Bakery – at the time under decorated baker Michael James – she learned to see the hero ingredient, wheat, as a living, breathing thing. Not just a packet of flour.
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Then “the whole world opened up” when she met eco-entrepreneur Joost Bakker, best known for the now-closed zero-waste Greenhouse restaurants, Silo cafe and soup kitchen Brothl, which used discarded bones from venues like Attica and Rockpool. Along for the revolutionary ride was chef Matt Stone, a long-time Bakker collaborator who became the third part of the triumvirate.
Barrett had found her people. Alongside Stone, she emerged as a culinary tour de force at the helm of the Yarra Valley’s Oakridge Wines. And elsewhere, her food philosophy was crystallising.
For Future Food System, another Bakker project, she and Stone moved into a tiny home and urban farm in Melbourne's Fed Square, living only on produce grown on-site. In 2021, they were honoured with the Hospitality Pioneers award from 50 Next, sibling of the prestigious 50 Best, which every year crowns the world’s top restaurant and bars.
Waste not, want not, was the pioneering motto at Future Food. “We didn’t have a bin,” Barrett says. “And since we’d grown all the food, we didn’t want to throw anything out.”
When the project team started hosting dinners for the public, Barrett and Stone realised their regular recipe arsenal was all but useless without staples as simple as sugar. That blank slate was “the most exciting thing”, says Barrett, her eyes lighting up with an assuredness and commitment to the cause most chefs can only dream of. “I can’t believe how much we did with so little.”
Through trial and (a lot of) error, Barrett and team went back to basics, stripping ingredients down to their most granular level to uncover new uses. From that came a series of masterful dishes: buckwheat fashioned into sausages; tiger nuts – not actually a nut, but an edible tuber or weed – adding surprising sweetness to desserts; and mushroom offcuts magicked into an umami-bomb of fungi garum, a take on the fermented fish sauce.
Logistics were key to making Future Food happen, Barrett says. “The detail in the build was immense … Growing systems of mushrooms, aquaponics, solar, induction, biogas. The whole lot.”
But for all its complexity, the lessons were remarkably simple. “It went completely full circle – back to cooking seasonally.”
In Barrett’s new book Sustain, that’s what the bigger picture advice boils down to. The tagline is “groundbreaking recipes and skills that could save the planet”, but she wants readers to know that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to make a real impact.
Start with a trip to the farmer’s market. Simply buying what’s in season, Barrett says, not only supports local growers but helps take the pressure off those farming produce outside of its ideal conditions. It also reduces waste and food miles.
Next, the book can help you create incremental change through cooking. Many of the processes Barrett learned and honed at Future Food are distilled down to their simplest form – now very much doable for home cooks and the sustainability-curious.
Want (semi) instant noodles? Barrett’s long-perfected, unlike-soba buckwheat version has a dough that “doesn’t need to rest, so you can make it, cook it and eat it in 15 minutes”. Want to make your own salumi? ’Nduja, or spicy spreadable sausage, is perfect for entry-level cooks because it cures in the fridge where there’s the least room for error.
While it’s definitely a cookbook, Sustain doesn’t follow a typical cookbook structure. Rather, it’s built on skills like fermenting and brining, or making yoghurt, cheese or sourdough.
There are 30 dishes you can either make with store-bought components or you can start by making those components yourself, from scratch. For example, you can pick up rye pasta and red peppers to make Barrett’s vibrant red pepper pasta. Or you can do a deep dive by rolling your own pasta dough and preserving your own peppers. Do the least or the most – it all depends on the time, effort and energy you have to spare. “Choose your own adventure,” Barrett says.
Other dishes star environmentally friendly, alternative-to-farmed proteins like yabbies and wallaby, and crowd-pleasers like stuffed potato cakes with spicy relish and sponge cake with rhubarb and lemon myrtle jam.
It’s not just about what’s for dinner tonight, however. Barrett wants to steel readers with the broad-brush skills to build a pantry that captures seasonal abundance, using newfound fermenting or preserving prowess to take small steps towards eating more mindfully.
And, importantly, it’s a good-looking addition to your recipe book collection. Barrett sees food as art, which translates in Sustain through mesmerising macro photography by Mark Roper. “I cook with so many processes,” she says. “And there’s so much beauty in [that]. I wanted to capture the things I get to see on a daily basis.”
The pages also burst to life at Barrett’s restaurant Little Picket, inside Lorne Bowls Club on the Surf Coast. It’s a warm, community-focused spot where the menu depends on what’s growing at nearby farms, or what’s donated by locals and bartered for a meal.
There’s no sustainability soapbox, despite Barrett’s crusade. With a soft touch and wealth of knowledge, she just wants to encourage the same curiosity that drives her. “There’s a lot of hype around sustainability, especially in restaurants,” she says. “Sometimes it can be an anti-climax – and it stops people from getting involved because they’ve worked it up in their minds.
“This is only something I’ve learned over time, but it can be so simple and easy – and it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s just food, and you just have to get started.”
This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.