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‘The creativity in Copenhagen doesn't stop, it's such a collaborative and friendly culture.’
Gems in this
Continuously fueling the innovative projects of trail-blazing Australian chefs Jo Barrett and Matt Stone is an insatiable appetite for travel. From working in restaurants in the Yarra Valley, to learning from chefs in the modern food mecca of Copenhagen, Jo and Matt are keen observers of global food culture.
For more than a decade, the duo have traveled to the world's far flung food markets and best restaurants, and brought these global learnings back to the Australian dining scene. And, in more recent years, they've been working alongside environmentalist Joost Bakker to rethink the future of restaurants. When Exceptional ALIEN spoke to the chefs, they were more than 200 days into living in a self-sustained, zero-waste house-cum-restaurant in downtown Melbourne for an experiment called Future Food System. We chat to Jo and Matt about traveling the globe in pursuit of fresh flavors, returning to Denmark year after year, and their top food and culture gems in Copenhagen.
On where you both grew up
J: I was born and bred in Melbourne in the northeastern suburbs. Although I have traveled a lot around the world, I'm still here in Melbourne. At the moment we're in Federation Square.
M: I grew up between Perth and Margaret River in the southwest of Western Australia.
On why you travel
J: Food inspiration is our main reason for travel. What is common for one is so foreign for another. In Australia we have amazing produce and access to epic ingredients, but some of our cooking just hasn't developed. So when traveling, you gain inspiration from really old fermenting techniques or learn the flavor profiles of foreign ingredients. Then we put our spin on it.
M: We 100% travel for food. Since I was 18, I've traveled every year for food — throughout Europe, Asia and the US. Food connects people more simply and powerfully than anything else. All stories are shared around a plate of food or a glass of wine. To really understand a culture and a place you have to connect with the food, because food is where the stories are.
On finding inspiration in Copenhagen
M: I did seven years in a row going to Copenhagen and made a lot of friends there. The food culture is really progressive. I saw a lot of what the future of food in Australia could be. René [Redzepi] really went back to the roots of the ingredients. He took a lot of inspiration from the proven primitive techniques and made this really amazing food movement globally. Then a lot of people started picking a weed or two and putting it on a plate and calling it foraging — it was done without meaning. But if you really understand what is happening in Noma today, it's much deeper. You see the effects now in Copenhagen, particularly in all of the up-and-coming restaurants founded by staff who have spent time at Noma.
On discovering your love for food
J: Food is what I always wanted to do. It was the collection of experiences of being in the garden, sharing pretty standard meals in the suburbs, and also my grandparents being in hospitality that just made me realise that cooking ticked all of the boxes. There’s the connection with the environment, hard work, and bringing people together.
M: My mother is not the greatest cook, it’s no family secret. So I first fell in love with food and cooking when I was around 15. School was never really for me, so I left very early and had to get a job pretty quickly. It had to be in the evenings so I could surf in the day. While washing dishes I quickly fell in love with the adrenaline of service and the passion that the chefs had towards food.
'All stories are shared around a plate of food or a glass of wine. To really understand a culture and a place you have to connect with the food, because food is where the stories are.'
On reassessing what we define as food
M: Today I cooked snails successfully for the first time. We've played around with them for ages and historically it's a food that's consumed all throughout Asia and Europe, and is often considered a delicacy. Yet, people are trying to get rid of them. We need to reassess what we're eating. I made this cool little satay sauce out of some different ferments that we have here at the house, chucked them over the coals and it was really delicious. We had some tips from an old French chef colleague and then applied some ideas from our travels, after seeing different things cooked on sticks on the street throughout Southeast Asia. We managed to come up with a really unique product.
On what you’d like to see change in modern food culture
J: We've removed ourselves from the food system. We now have the convenience factor so we're not as involved, and we're more focused on the step of getting food into our bellies.
M: There's a really big divide between Australian Aboriginal food culture and what now makes up the modern Australian diet. The further we can look back and understand how people lived off the land in this country, the more we can really start to create our own food culture.
On the idea behind Future Food System
J: We really want to push the boundaries with what is possible in an urban environment. This could be our next major food scene — Melbourne cuisine based on what a productive building can do. We really need to hone in on that and communicate it to the masses.
On what you’re growing at the Greenhouse
J: Murnong or yam daisy, which was a really prolific tuber with a beautiful yellow flower on top. We’ve got barramundi [native Australian fish] and yabbies [Australian freshwater crustacean] growing in tanks. We also have a spice that’s like a native basil, called Australian Five Spice. It’s a little thick, furry leaf and when you rub it between your fingers it smells like Coca-Cola. In the morning we make tea with it and it's so yummy.
'We really want to push the boundaries with what is possible in an urban environment. This could be our next major food scene — Melbourne cuisine based on what a productive building can do.'
On finding time for food
M: You definitely have to dedicate time to nourishing yourself. We dedicate time to so many things that are unimportant these days. But you have to invest some of the time you have available to you, and some of the money. The first step then is to eat seasonally. By eating seasonally, you minimize emissions and waste hugely.
On connecting with a global community
J: We're in a time of communication. There's so much information on YouTube or Instagram — you can talk to the people who are using specific cooking techniques or who've spent the time mastering a skill. They want to share what they've learned and their mistakes. With the Future Food System, it's not about us, it's about the community as a whole getting better. I hate doing things on my own. I love feeling like it’s a team effort and we've all put in. Every single continent and country would be feeling different pressures around food security or nutritional content. And that's what this is about: it's about working together and finding solutions for some of these problems, no matter where you live. It’s showing that together, we can all do it. So hearing what other people are doing is so important for us, I love that collaboration.
On the power of collaboration
M: The whole project is based on collaboration. People dedicate their lives to learning one thing, and you can't learn it all. That's been a big maturing point for us. You should surround yourself with people that inspire you to be better. Rather than saying you’re going to be the best at everything, a more humble approach is working really hard to learn and focus on what you love and what excites you. Then you won't get frustrated and give up. You must be open to knowledge from others.
On who’s inspiring you right now
M: Matt Orlando in Copenhagen at Amass Restaurant. It’s an awesome restaurant on the other side of the river, and he grows heaps of food and focuses on zero-waste cooking. It’s a cool, fun dining room where he regularly changes the murals by local artists. Christian Puglisi is another great chef in Copenhagen. I was lucky enough to eat at Relæ several times and we actually hosted him out here in Australia when he came a few years ago.
'There’s an amazing culture of food in Denmark, and Danish people are very proud of it. They’re also very friendly and will share that knowledge.'
On food culture in Denmark
M: There’s an amazing culture of food and Danish people are very proud of where they’ve gotten to. They’re very friendly and they’ll share that knowledge. The first time I went to Copenhagen I met James, who runs front-of-house at Noma. He’s a guy from South Australia who I’d never met before. Before I’d even dined at the restaurant, he knew I was in town by myself and invited me around to his place for dinner. There were a bunch of different colleagues all drinking wine and making pasta. I met all of these people who I’m still friends with today. It’s a melting pot of people and ideas and it doesn’t stop. I’ve been there through all different seasons, and even in the dead of winter, people are still in restaurants, they’re still riding their bikes through town, they’re still doing awesome things. The creativity doesn’t stop and it’s such a collaborative, friendly culture.
On art, coffee and bike rides through Copenhagen
J: Definitely check out Copenhagen Contemporary. It’s so cool to walk through, and the collection of artwork on display was actually a highlight of our trip. Also, get a bicycle and cruise around, having a few coffee stops. We also did a bit of picnicking as the natural wine scene is so big and the sour beers are great. Mikkeller is a brewery across the river — ride over there and get amazing beer on tap. We sat outside in the sun all afternoon and just drank incredible beers.
On food markets and good design
M: Yes, go to the Coffee Collective — they have a bunch of different cafés, including the one in the central market [Torvehallerne]. It may take a little while to get your order because they take it pretty seriously, but they take their time to make sure it’s an awesome cup of coffee. The central market itself is also another top stop. It's a great thing to look at fresh produce in a city to gain an understanding of the ingredients and the food culture. In the summer you’ll see 15 kinds of berries that you've never seen before, and it only costs a few kroner to buy and eat them when they're perfectly ripe and delicious. It gives you a sense of the season. And definitely head to the Design Museum. Some of the chairs and furniture there are just so cool. I never thought I'd be so pumped to look at chairs for a few hours. It's a really important part of Danish culture.
On your favorite spots for a drink
M: There’s one bar on the river that’s awesome, called Ved Stranden 10. It’s quite famous and a lot of hospitality staff hang out there. It’s a quaint little wine bar with a wooden staircase, and you just grab a glass or a bottle and head down to sit on the little jetty out front. And one of my favorite memories is also drinking beers in the sunshine at Mikkeller and looking back at the city. They've got a barbecue cranking with the simple stuff coming from it. When you do get those warm sunny days in the city, everyone is out jumping in the water, partying. It's a really special vibe.
'We came over a hill and all the pale green trees were weeping and swaying with sunlight shining through their leaves. It was misty and there were little bugs in the air. I remember thinking ‘Oh this is so Scandinavian'.'
On your strongest memory of the city
J: We’d just been to see the Little Mermaid statue and were cycling back through the park. We came over a hill and all the pale green trees were weeping and swaying with sunlight shining through their leaves. It was misty and there were little bugs in the air. I remember thinking ‘Oh this is so Scandinavian’. It was very different to what I'm used to in Australia and it completely transported me. It’s funny, whenever I think of Copenhagen, I actually think of that moment, cruising around on a bike, rather than eating in a restaurant.
On a window or an aisle seat
J: I prefer an aisle seat when traveling by plane because I don't like to inconvenience anyone, and from the aisle it’s really quick to get out.
M: I also like the aisle seat, so it’s challenging when we travel together. But we share and mix it up.
On Copenhagen in one word
Everyone’s so friendly. From the high-end restaurants to the hot dog street vendors. Oh! That’s another thing, you can get a great hot dog with beautiful pickles on it for a couple of kroner. But yes, everyone is really, really friendly.
There's something for everyone in Copenhagen. It's just an all-encompassing, beautiful place.