I found myself again, unplanned in Melbourne. Sarah has arrived for 24 hours only. Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, lucky you – quite prophetic to place yourself around the date of my arrival. But The Rickshaw Run is booked out, Two Goats on Gertrude is the other side of town, and I can’t get my brother to spend $165 on Seasonal Pleasures. A smorgasbord of the world’s better chefs are talking shop under the big tent, but I’m a sensory explorer – I need to eat. The MFWF twitter account told me to try dinner at Greenhouse by Joost. The concept enthrawls me – a sustainable restaurant, they say. Organic, biodynamic, local, recycled, without waste. It’s so cool, the new black.
It’s temporary, only here for the festival. The claim is that the entire building is made of reclaimed, recycled or recyclable materials. I’m a little skeptical – it all looks a little too new, linear, matchy-matchy. Ecoply lines the walls, which are stuffed with straw. The outside is a perfect collection of strawberry seedling symetry. Not producing fruit yet, and there are only 12 days left – I doubt a harvest table (later confirmed with the site of six plastic punnets being taken to the kitchen by a chef). The floor is reclaimed conveyor belts, I have read. They look so good I have to google it to double check. The seating is a mix of clunky irrigation pipes and recycled vinyl posters. The toilets are system which takes recyling to a whole new level. They’re reclaiming bodily nitrogen for fertilizer, which will sustain a mustard crop in Daylesford (one of my favourite country weekend spots) that will supply the oil to fuel next year’s restaurant. A Shannon Bennett (Vue de Monde) endorsed ewater system accompanies them.
My scepticism waxes as I sit. The tables are too small, the chairs too low. They are set with an interesting choice of shaggy reusable cloth napkins and compostable plantation timber cutlery. Surely it’s easier to compost a recycled paper napkin and wash metal cutlery? Then there’s the water glasses. Jars. Perfectly matching, unscratched jars, complete with screw top. Recycled, possibly, but definitely not reclaimed. Beer arrives in smoothed sawn-off beer bottles for glasses. Rustic and funky. My non-descript non-local (SA) Riesling arrives in a slightly larger jar than the water. It looks like pee in a doctor’s sample jar.
The food is hippy gourmet. Whole-grains, weeds and protein that only health nuts eat predominate. My companion struggles. She sees my excitement at an unusual offering, and so diplomatically “umms” and “ahhs” over the brown paper menu until finally she murmurs “I’m not so hungry actually – perhaps I’ll just have a muffin.” I kind of want the smoked sardines, or the clams with cider or sea lettuce, but sensing her discomfort, and after being told that dishes are meant to be shared, I order the smokey eggplant dip and the pumpkin and chickpea tagine. Luckily I order up big – the savoury muffin is dense and flavourless, and my pal is thankful for the extras – which are good, but not outstanding.
The venue is designed to be youthful and relaxed. The raw finishes are coupled with lazy stacks of produce in the corner, signs scribbled on framed cardboard and staff in jeans and sloganed Tshirts “Greenhouse takes the piss”, “roll my oats” etc. But the chill spills into lax as the staff mingle over a plate at the pass, leaving customers to wait during service while they sample the fare. My waitress has no idea what the “Natural Selection Riesling” is, or who makes it. She does find out where it comes from though – “South Australia” she discovers – well considering the South Aussies make most of our Riesling out there, she could have guessed that.
The chefs are covered in ink, be-capped, and work with rapper swagger. I half expect one to launch into profanity-filled prose and start flipping us the bird. They swoop and duck like there’s some kind of music going on in there, and every now and then the waist-deep openings of their singlets fly open to reveal more tats and a hairy nipple. They process sauces, then double-dip with butter knives, tasting, sharing with the wait staff, tasting again. Each time the knife goes back in the pot. I realise it’s kind of junky-cool, but I don’t want to look at chefs armpits and nipples while I eat and drink, nor do I want a sample of their saliva in my condiment – it’s enough to put me off my urine sample and cardboard cupcake.
There are places like this all over Australia in greenie communities like Byron Bay, but up there it’s easier to swallow. They’re not sustainable because it’s cool – they are because they have to be – it’s both in the owners’ blood and consumer and financially demanded. They serve up local beans with coconut wild rice because it’s the only food they can stomach to serve you, plus, it’s cheap. They support local business because the big players don’t know who they are, and don’t offer them discounts. Their staff have dreadlocks and clothes from St Vinnies because that’s what the local population looks like.
But in Melbourne it all feels a little surreal. It’s like we’re being fed a line, and it doesn’t settle well, at least not at first. Some of it just doesn’t make sense – the wooden cutlery – too fragile even to slice one of their dense home-milled muffins, and the drinking jars – surely it would take less energy to recycle glass into a shape without a screw-top…? The polystyrene crates in the corner just look so wrong. Sure, the website says the containers are all re-usable, but isn’t this stuff the eco-anti-christ? It’s kind of like the “lite” or urban version of eco-warrior lifestyle, something that has been moulded to fit the city-dweller’s palate, and boxed up in very eco-acceptable packaging.
After retiring, thinking and researching, I find that my lack of confidence in the offering is possibly a little undeserved. The behind the scenes work really does sound quite incredible. Bio-fueled, kitchen gardened, local, and yes, I do love the plumbing system, even though the rolling fields of beautiful Daylesford are soon to be covered in human excrement. Their young chef, Matt Stone, is Gourmet Traveller’s 2011 best new talent, and we did play safe on the menu – not the way to test a chef’s prowess, for sure. It’s also more than possible that my excitement over such an adventurous exercise led me to overly nit-pick. (Damn tall poppy syndrome)
Another thing I have learned this week, through the whole Kony 2012 rigmarole, is that sometimes a message needs to be given in a particular fashion to be accepted by the populace. We are fairly dim, after all – otherwise we would have effectively put a stop to African warlords, and put a start to many more effective sustainable restaurants long ago. We need our issues dressed up in pop culture and spoon fed to us, or we forget to jump on the cause.
So, Greenhouse and Joost, I’m sorry I didn’t love your endevour. Perhaps I should have tried harder, and the more I read, the more I find to like. Well done, and keep up the good work (just make it even better).
You can catch Greenhouse by Joost until March 21 by the yarra on the Southbank side of Queensbury St Melbourne, in front of Left Bank. It’s open all day, with breakfast, lunch and dinner service, and drinks and small snacks available in between and after. No bookings except for structured events. There is a great rooftop garden bar to hit on a sunny afternoon. Melbourne Food and Wine Festival link here. Map here.