Seeing the cabbage patch for the cabbages

Hobart corner pub Tom McHugo’s is cherishing the island’s bountiful produce, and making something uniquely Tasmanian in the process. By naming and celebrating every one of their producers, Nick Buckley explains how the restaurant is bringing agriculture and hospitality closer together.

Chalked on a blackboard hung on the front door of Tom McHugo’s Hobart Hotel is a list of vegetable growers – Fat Carrot Farm, Provenance Grower, Rocky Top Farm, Suzi + Liz, Felds Farm and Golden Valley Farm. It’s a simple gesture, but it’s also a sign of how close to nature Hobart’s hospitality industry is, and how the best of those pubs, restaurants, bars are using that to their advantage.

The pub’s seasonal, local menu is also a mission to distinguish the current operation from the pub’s debaucherous past when INXS blared from the upstairs karaoke machine.

“Through the ‘80s and ‘90s it was the place to come and get rowdy. Every second person you talk to who’s over 40 will have a story about how they used to dance on the bar,” says chef-owner Tom Westcott, who took over the pub two and a half years ago with his partner Whitney Ball. “It’s certainly a lot calmer now.”

Before getting the keys, Ball and Westcott had cut their teeth in some of Hobart’s best restaurants. At the time, both were working over the road at the lauded Franklin, with Ball running front of house and Westcott in the kitchen. Ball had worked in a pub before, but Westcott was green. Still, the opportunity of a CBD corner site in a capital city was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Tom McHugo's owners Whitney Ball and Tom Westcott

Westcott’s early ideas of a pub were stereotypical. You’d go, drink copious pints soaked up with a schnitzel or a steak, and then wash your meal down with more ale. But as he started reaching out to his valued suppliers, Westcott and Ball realised that in order to stay true to themselves, they needed to take a different route – one that started with a chalkboard.

Westcott describes how through the pressures of urbanisation, employment, mass agriculture and the proliferation of supermarket chains, the farmer and consumer have grown distant.

“If we can create a little community hub that allows consumers to realise they’re not just getting fed shit generic food from a supermarket or a wholesaler that imports it from the mainland … that it actually comes from someone who’s like them that lives locally and works bloody hard for what they do, then I think it just makes it a little bit more real and makes the world a little bit smaller.”

At Tom McHugo’s, Westcott orders in a whole lamb every week, and a whole pig every fortnight. He breaks the animals down and reserves each part for roasting cuts, organ-filled faggots, blood sausages, house-cured and smoked leg ham, and terrine.
“Where it counts is taking something down into its smallest portions and using them to actually celebrate the animal and the vegetable and offer them to the public,” says Westcott.

Confit albacore tuna on toast with pickled zucchini, beans and peppers

But as Hobart’s dining scene grows, so does the demand for the small-scale, organic produce that restaurants like Tom McHugo’s have staked their names on. Still, it’s a problem that Westcott sees as only a positive thing in the long run.

“It used to be the joke that all you could get in Hobart all year [round] was potatoes and cabbage. Now you’ve got six different types of potato and four different types of cabbage,” says Westcott. “I see it as healthy. It means that these small producers, if they want to, have got the opportunity to upscale.”

What Westcott makes with that produce changes daily, and appears on the menu at seemingly miraculous prices. You might find grilled sugarloaf cabbage with smoked pepper and fried pork sauce for $10; grilled beef tongue with glazed turnips, radicchio and mustard cream for $18; or a classic chicken parmigiana for $13.

“My background in the past is buying everything and doing everything from scratch. It’s a constant battle between whether or not it’s a good business decision, cost effective or time [efficient] to be doing things that way … but it’s the thing that makes it most interesting,” says Westcott.

“I don’t understand how people could just order in pork scotch fillet in a bag and see that as a real form of cookery. I’m sure that it relates to training and the environment that you’re in … but I really think, as far as the future of cookery, it kind of has to go back to where it started.”

Built in 1842 The pub has had many names – The Hobart Hotel, Maloney’s, the Montgomery Hotel – but its current name goes back to its Irish operator in the 1940s, something Westcott found out from one of his regulars, a former journalist at the Mercury who would come across the road from the news hall for a drink on lunch breaks. The punter unearthed some old photos and articles and the name stuck. But despite wanting to disturb the status-quo pub format, Westcott still looks at them with reverence as community hubs, where suits rub shoulders with tradies, and regulars’ elbows have their own grooves worn into the timber bar top.

“I guess I look at pubs, especially the inner-city ones, as being like a hawker stand just a more permanent fixture. You see the workers. It’s easily accessible, reasonably cheap, easy-to-push-out-on-volume food. But we’re doing that with produce that’s the best in Tasmania,” says Westcott.

However breaking through the stigma of a pub as a place of uninventive fare is a challenge. As is finding staff with the passion and training to keep up with the labour intensive cooking at Tom McHugo’s.

Westcott rails against the dated training at some cooking schools, the influence of social media in encouraging presentation-first cooking, and the rise of celebrity television chefs. And keeping young chefs on the island is just as hard.

“We have young guys that have worked for me that are like, ‘I can’t wait to move to the mainland’, and I’m like, ‘yeah but you can’t see the forest for the trees. You know, you’ll get there and you’ll be like, where’s the Castlefranco radicchio that’s still dripping with dew?’”

 Baked lime leaf pannacotta with feijoas

Whether it’s on the beverage list of low-intervention and biodynamic wines, the range of Tasmanian-only tap beers (from James Boag’s XXX Ale to hand-pumped ales from micro-breweries), or his menu, Westcott certainly can see the forest for the trees, or the cabbage patch for the cabbages. And it’s coming together at a time that, buoyed by the success of Mona and its festivals, Hobart’s hospitality industry is shining. But rather than simply aping the mainland, restaurants like Tom McHugo’s are cherishing the bounty of the island, and creating something uniquely Tasmanian in the process.

“I can drive for 20 minutes and be at any one of our farmers. I’ve known them since I was an apprentice or a very young cook,” says Westcott. “We’re all wanting to create something that everyone misses. You’re trying to create this comforting sense [that] you’re going to get something that just makes you relax and come back to what it means to actually be nourished and to eat, rather than it just being about making things look good.”

Photography: Eden Meure.

This article was first published in foodservice's August 2019 issue. Read the digital magazine here.