Acre's Gareth Howard talks sustainable dining

Gareth Howard, head chef of Acre.
To highlight World Environment Day (Monday June 5), online reservations service OpenTable hosted a lunch at Sydney restaurant Acre to discuss the importance of sustainable dining. Foodservice spoke to British-born, head chef Gareth Howard about the initiative, and how he and his team are doing their part to respect the Earth while plating up tasty, beautiful food.
Acre and Pocket City Farm, Camperdown Commons.

Acre together with Pocket City Farm are located on the Camperdown Commons site. How did the transformation from bowling green to restaurant and small farm happen?

One of my directors and the owner of Acre, Luke Heard, was actually a member of the Pocket City Farm board before we opened. He used to work on Wall Street and hated it. He returned back to Australia six years ago. Luke will tell you the story that on the plane on the way back he read a very, very interesting article about world food supply and then, in particular, world food shortage. And just it homed in on him that the fact that if we don't act in a pretty quick way as to how we're consuming food and producing food that the world is going to run out of food pretty quickly.

So, with that in mind, Luke came back and decided working with the other owner, John Tully, to collectively offer hospitality guidance to, in particular, RSLs and the clubs in New South Wales, who are all in this period at the moment where they're trying to regenerate and do other things as well as running the RSL clubs.

Canterbury Hills and Park RSL took on the massive tender for this whole site and engaged Pocket City Farms to run the front section. And then Luke and John had the idea that we connect the two and have an onsite farm as a partner, as well as having Acre.


Acre, Camperdown Commons.

What is the philsophy behind Acre?

The idea was never to try and force anything on people. We're not preachers or anything. But we wanted to give people an alternative way of thinking about producing and consuming food. And with a site like this, which is so large in its capacity and the way we set up, people get the opportunity to walk through the front gates of Camperdown Commons, and they can see produce growing in the garden, they can see what's seasonal. And it starts to engage people's minds about seasonality and the way we produce food.

But then we wanted that to continue into the restaurant, and walking up through the doors and being able to see that food being processed in the kitchen. So we purposely designed this open kitchen to see all the chefs working. So you can see just how many chefs it may take to produce this kind of food on the level that we want to do and for the amount of people that we want to do.

But then also get to sit inside a restaurant that feels sort of homey and feels almost like a farmer's home. That was the idea of the design of the restaurant, to sit down and engage in a meal with your friends, family, whoever it may be, in a style of service if you wanted to get people communicating and to get people talking about food and enjoying it.

(Clockwise from left) duck liver parfait, bread and cultured butter, cauliflower fritti and macadamia hummous. 

How would you describe the food at Acre?

Our food isn't pretentious. We don't try and be poncy about it. We let the ingredients do the talking. But the idea is that we're in constant communication with Pocket City, local farmers, local producers, the fishmongers that I use, to try and make the menu as tasty as possible, but completely focused on seasonality.

What exactly do you mean when you say 'seasonality'?

When I talk about seasonality, I don't just mean Australia as a whole, but we look at seasonality on a very local scale, so New South Wales first.

I think it's very easy when you live in Australia, and it's been a big thing since I've been here for the last three and a half years, to associate Australia's seasonality with being the whole of Australia. What's seasonal in the Northern Territory and what's seasonal in New South Wales are two very, very different things. They're almost like continents or worlds apart, almost in sort of air miles. And we've been very, very keen on reducing miles since we've opened here. So, every single thing I can source from New South Wales, I do. Because the amount of good quality produce from the farmers, the produce for meat, for fish, that comes out of New South Wales is extraordinary. Some of the best I've tasted. Some of the best small local producers I've ever had to work with.

Slow roasted porchetta with seasonal roast vegetables and garden remoulade.

How does Australian produce compare to that of your home country, Britain?

I worked for Jaime Oliver back in the UK for eight years. And that was one of his big, big things back in the UK that we support local producers of good quality. And that was the only thing that ever mattered in the restaurant - the quality of food. The quality of product coming in and then serving it simply on a plate so the people could sort of taste that quality.

When I came to Australia and I started tasting some of the goods, and in particular from New South Wales, from as local as Marrickville, from Belmore, we use some things, from olive oil that you can taste here from Rylstone, Central Tablelands. The produce is amazing, and it doesn't just compare or compete with a lot of the stuff from Europe that you come to know and love as being brilliant. It actually exceeds a lot of that taste and quality.

So hopefully that reflects in the food. Entrees are served here, and they are very simple and they're uber-seasonal. Australia macadamia nut hummus, a cauliflower fritti, which is the first recipe I ever learned when I was a fifteen-year-old chef from an Indian lady. She made this cauliflower fritti for me with spiced mango chutney. But we've just taken that, and we've taken local quince, which are completely in season now, and we've changed it into a quince-spiced marmalade. So, little sort of home-like touches.

What I wanted to do was try and get people to be nostalgic and feel nostalgic feelings when eating here. So I thought when we were writing the menu, if I could do that with some of the stuff that played a part in my heart when I was little, then hopefully that would translate to other people as well.