When it comes to sourcing produce for its restaurants, QT Hotels & Resorts has decided to do things a little differently. Instead of going through the market system to source meat, fruit and vegetables for Gowings Bar and Grill, Capitol Bar and Grill and the QT Resorts interactive marketplace concept, Bazaar, it has employed Georgie Neal as its in-house "forager", to research and find the best seasonal crops Australian farmers have to offer.
After spending five seasons in a research position at SBS’s Food Safari, a show telling stories through cultural food, it’s clear that the forager position is the perfect fit for Neal. She remembers when she received a call from a friend one day telling her about it. “I actually thought they were joking because the job description was everything I loved.”
The buzzword-y job title brings to mind days spent plucking edible weeds from sun-dappled forest roads, but that isn’t quite the reality.
The role involves cutting out the middle-man between the grower and chef. This cuts down the time and number of hands between vegetable picking and dishing up – the result is a richer meal. “There’s a lot of people between grower, chef and consumer, but that also means a lot of time. It’s a freshness factor for me; nothing beats something that’s just been picked. The flavour is incomparable to anything that’s been in storage. [This initiative is] trying to show what the growers are doing. Food doesn’t just come in a plastic sleeve in a supermarket.”
True to the title, Neal travels widely, sourcing produce from the Hawkesbury and across the mountains in Sydney, to Orange, the Lockyer Valley Region and the borders of NSW.
She’s sourced specialty lettuce, Salanova from the Kanimbla Valley; gathered cauliflowers, broccoli, silver beet; beautiful citrus from the Hawkesbury; and apples from Bilpin.
Connecting with growers in person has been one of the most educational aspects of the job. "They can lose an entire crop in a bad season and that's what their entire livelihood gone. We want to pay producers a fair price, which, in a lot of cases, is more than what they'd get through the market system."
Neal names Fabrice Rolando at First Farm Organics in the Kanimbla Valley as a standout producer, offering beautiful lettuce, radish and baby turnips. “His produce is like nothing I’ve ever seen, everything is like a jewel.”
August was the first month the menu at QT's restaurants was based around produce Neal has sourced. "We really want to grow things specially with our producers. It's not a guaranteed income for them, but we say 'You're in the perfect climate to grow X, Y and Z. Let's do this together, let's put it on the menu for a month."
When it comes to putting the produce on the plate, Neal works with QT Hotels’ creative food director, Robert Marchetti. They meet a few months in advance of each menu, to plan the produce intake. “I will present what I’ve found on my travels, then Robert will go away and decide what they will create the menu around.”
The August menu included tiny radishes that have been specially grown for QT Hotels for its chopped tuna poke with the Hawaiian flavours of of jalapeño, coriander, coconut cream and lime juice.
In Australia you can walk into any supermarket and find fruit and vegetables that aren’t currently in season, which Neal says is part of the problem. She references Germany’s celebration of the short white asparagus season with a festival. “To me that’s what it should be about. It’s about not wanting something all year round, but thinking, ‘Fantastic, for one month of the year we have this vegetable, what can we do with it?’ Then moving on to the next. The excitement of having something for one month at its absolute peak does it for me.”