Chef talk: Terry Barrett, a man for all seasons
What prompts a chef to do full circle? From wanting to put everything on a plate, to going back to basics, and keeping it simple.
At Home Hill Winery, where Terry Barrett cooks as we look out at cows and vineyards in a glorious southern Tasmanian rural setting, it was just that, that pushed him back to home base: those views.
What was your pivotal moment?
“I decided, after looking out at cows and vineyards everyday that where are we? We’re in the country, so we decided that’s what we are and what we’ll do – country! So we gave it a silly nickname in the kitchen, ‘new age country’ just for fun. So to get the kitchen happening is a challenge – it’s small, and we only run 3-4 staff at a time. We had to design the menu really well to handle the prep and keep the prep up and make sure the food is up to standard.”
How does that work on your menu?
“We’ve got a roast pork dish – rack with the loin and crackle and sides of cabbage. Simple, but perfectly cooked with high quality ingredients. Our focus is on Tasmania, sourcing from as many local suppliers as we can. We’re always working on those relationships with growers. We make everything in house –
I feel I’ve gone full circle from wanting to put so many elements on a plate to keeping it simple.”
I guess that’s getting to know your market?
“When I took over the kitchen, I began building the restaurant back up and the owners didn’t give me a brief, they let me do my own thing. It took me 18 months to find our feet, what our identity is, nail the menu, and get the staffing right. For me, the key is learning your clientele: here, it changes from locals, foodies, tourists, day to day – we try to open up two different styles of dining – so people can do a share plate thing or, if they prefer, the traditional 3 course dining, which on Sundays is what they do. Our focus is on old-fashioned flavours and dishes with a sharp modern upgrade – we boosted a traditional salmon with hollandaise dish by turning the sauce into a modern take with burnt butter, it works. People loved it.”
Tell us about your suppliers, and are they connected to your process?
“I love the farming practices of Tongola – you can only buy his cheese for 6 months of the year, that makes it special, and Coal River Valley is amazing. Andy Jackman from Red Cow Dairyin the north of the state is making a cows’ milk semi-hard and I love the Bruny Island cheeseas well. The driver is the produce – the eggs come from across the road – they’re still warm when we get them, the colour is deep gold. We do a play on the lemon meringue pie – the colour of the yolks is incredible. We use milk from Udderleyand Ashmore cream, when you’re making ice cream you can taste the difference.”
It’s a new dining era, isn’t it?
“Because of all the cooking shows, people can cook a great pasta or risotto at home, so now we need to keep one step ahead and provide some comfort food with a twist – quality food at a good price. And when I am out at the markets or farms, I test potatoes for the sugar content – cut them in half, lick them or nibble, if they’re too sweet I don’t use them. If there’s too much sugar, you don’t get crunch and they burn – I do a lot of work for a simple chip. These are points I think of and every batch is unique. I also looked around at what’s coming from the Huon? Apples! So we do apple dishes – we’re sitting on old apple fields where the winery is now, and this is a nod to the heritage of the area.”
Tell us your story, where did you start?
“Believe it or not, I was a fussy child as an eater, I didn’t come from a food background at all – in high school I started getting ‘As’ in Home Economics, which gave me confidence, so I guess it started from there. Dad was a military man and sent me off to navy cadets, and I started going to camps, and chose to train in cooking – we’d get sent up to army bases in Brisbane, and we’d hang out with chefs there. I was geared up to join the navy, was skipping school, and thought my dad would give me a bullocking, but when I told him I didn’t like school, he told me I could leave but had to get an apprenticeship. So cooking was it, I fell into it, and fell in love with it.”
“I landed a job in a café at University of Queensland, in the city near the gardens, and then got bored, so I decided I needed a challenge, and got a job with David Pugh, atTwo Small Rooms. I was there for 3 years – it was fantastic experience and a lot of English chefs came in from Marco’s and Gordon’s kitchens. But these guys brought their culture with them – they were demanding and abusive. I worked out it was more fear tactics than anything. I believe in being firm and direct but treating people with respect, you can have military order but without being a prick.”
You’re singing to the choir here – I’d love to see that disappear altogether. It does so much damage to young kids. Where to next then?
“I qualified, migrated up to the Sunshine Coast and worked there for about 5 years, then went overseas, spending a lot of time in New Zealand and South East Asia, where I fell in love with the fusion food. Somehow I ended up in Brazil, met my wife, learning about the culture and the food. Brazil is amazing – it’s a melting pot with influences from Africa, Europe, Asia, the diversity of the food is incredible. The food is carbohydrate heavy, but I love the beach culture food – and over there the regulations are looser where you can sit on the beach and have a beautiful meal, cold beer, with your feet in the sand.
Their street food is so diverse. After I met my wife and decided to settle in Hobart – I wanted to find a job where I could grow as a chef. Again, I got lucky, and got a job with André Kropp at Henry Jones, and Vinnie McDonald (now at Agrarian Kitchen). Every day I felt good working there – they have a great customer focus – and we had classes about creating life memories for our guests. We were actually trained to stop and talk to guests. Six years there set me on the right path, and I took over from André for 2 years when he moved to Wrest Point.”
What was your key lesson from there?
“I found the ideal balance in a kitchen is not all top chefs – which creates negativity – there’s too much competition, and too many ‘great idea’ guys make a bad working environment.
So now I have levels of people – skills – in the kitchen – with a couple of high quality people at the top, then medium quality sous and chef de parties, then ‘yes men’, who are great at their job and happy doing what they’re doing. From there, it’s the training of the apprentices, though that comes with its challenges. My 4thyear makes $40 an hour on a Sunday, which makes it financially hard for a small business, but it’s important to have your right levels in the kitchen. I’m glad they get paid properly but there has to be a line in the sand. Looking back, I guess Henry Jonesis my golden egg on my resumé.”
How did you land at Home Hill?
“I came down 18 months ago through Paul Foreman and the local chef community. My move to Hobart 8 years ago was basically because I fell in love with the Gourmet Farmer series and wanted to be him. Then I landed the job at Henry Jones– I’d gone back to Brazil visiting my wife’s family, and was doing interviews at 2 am. During the 6 years with Federal, I was doing a lot of hours and was tired, so I went to Brazil for a year to have a break. In that year I only did 2 pop up restaurants. The rest was exploring the country and its food.”
It’s been a big journey for you Terry Barrett, what’s your advice now to young kids wanting to start out in the industry?
“It’s not as glorified as they think. Cheffing is a blue collar job, it’s a workers’ job. I still think chefs are artists, but there’s so much hard work behind that. No other industry has a deadline like we do – you only ever get 3 – 4 hours to prepare, then it’s on, relentless, every day.
But, if you are interested, then have a go – it’s a great job if you’re a passionate, creative person, then you’ll love it. Be mindful that you have to be organised, 20% is cooking, the rest is cleaning and maintaining. Be prepared to get your hands dirty. There’re no real fun jobs in the kitchen, but they need to be done. It’s the concept – the work needs to be done. Self drive and self-education is vital. They have so much information at their fingertips – which is a blessing and a curse. For me, mentoring is important – I put them into books, Google, getting information and learning all the classics – they’re our foundation. It’s all been done before, so don’t think you’re going to set the world on fire with a new invention. But there’s always room for a new take on a great dish. And never forget, we’re only human, people need to remember that sometimes, we’re a customer focussed business, we make mistakes. Be kind to yourself, and your team. And for every chef?
“You’re only good as a chef as your last service.”
Thank you Terry Barrett, wise words, a fantastic career, and still a long way to go I think. He’s only just found his feet at Home Hill, and it’s pumping. The food is fantastic, so if you fancy a trip to the country, it’s worth the drive, trust me.