Food & Culture

What it's like when chefs make a tree-change

Diving for abalone, visiting farm gates, herding cows and scaring off snakes – it's all in a day's work for these tree-change chefs who've left the bright city lights behind.

By Emma Breheny & Fiona Donnelly
Analiese Gregory

Analiese Gregory, Franklin (Hobart, Tasmania)

Analiese Gregory remembers running out of fuel on the drive between Hobart and home after missing the last petrol station for 50 kilometres. She mentions going hiking on her way into work at Franklin, stopping to pick flowers and native ingredients. There were the Sundays when she'd have wine for dinner because she forgot to visit the supermarket and couldn't bear a two-hour round-trip into town on her day off. Relocating from Sydney, Australia's largest metropolis, to Hobart, its second smallest, was bound to result in some eye-opening moments. But after moving in the winter of 2017, she's now a self-sufficient wonder woman, keeping chickens, diving for abalone and sea urchin, and making her own cheese and charcuterie.
"I never meant to do the sustainable lifestyle thing, but it does seem to be going that way," she says. Perhaps it's more like a return to her roots: Gregory grew up on a dairy farm in Matamata on New Zealand's north island, the small town whose claim to fame is being home to the Hobbiton set used in the The Lord of the Rings. After years living in Sydney, the vibe of Hobart and its friendly, inquisitive locals was a jolt for Gregory. "It's more about you slowing down enough to have time for them," she says. Sounds like she's pulled it off like a natural.
Rachael Boon and Ben Wallace

Rachael Boon and Ben Wallace, Oaks Kitchen & Garden, Oak Beach, Queensland

Compared with two years ago, life couldn't be more different for Ben Wallace and Rachael Boon. In 2017 they quit Melbourne's northern suburbs to clear 1.6-hectares of overgrown land owned by Boon's dad in Tropical North Queensland. Now Boon, a former manager at Fitzroy venue Village People Hawker Foodhall, and Wallace, former sous-chef at Collingwood's Easy Tiger, divide their time between growing Thai ingredients, teaching travellers and locals to cook, and creating Southeast Asian feasts at their restaurant, Oaks Kitchen. "I feel sometimes I'm in a dream," says Boon. "There's so much nature and beauty around me."
A highlight of living in lush tropical surrounds, they say, is having so much edible inspiration at hand. But it's been a vertiginous learning curve. Before arriving at Oak Beach the pair's gardening know-how was limited to inner-city plots and balconies. And their daily routine has been turned virtually inside out. "When we were working in restaurants, by the time you cash up and clean up, you're not home until around 4.30am. These days we're up at 4.30am – but not by choice," laughs Wallace. "We'd probably stay asleep until 5.30am or 6am if we could – but the rooster wakes us, and we have to go and tend to him and the chickens."
Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis Fleet

Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis Fleet (Brunswick Heads, New South Wales)

"You could lay on the road on a Wednesday night and be in no danger of being run over," Astrid McCormack laughs as she recounts what Brunswick Heads was like when she and her partner Josh Lewis opened Fleet in 2015. The sleepy town held more appeal for the pair than its bustling neighbour Byron Bay. First of all, there's the fishing, a drawcard for Lewis, who often takes the boat out pre-dawn. Then there's the pub, good coffee and a welcoming community of locals and other sea changers.
Running a restaurant that's perennially booked out also helps make you known – McCormack says her weekly visits to Byron Farmers Market are never quick: "I'm always getting harassed: 'Astrid, Astrid, do you have any tables on the 14th of June?'" This year, things will get even busier with the opening of their Mexican restaurant La Casita, just down the road from Fleet. Otherwise, catch them on a rare day off at the New Brighton Farmers Market, barefoot, reusable bags in hand, doing as the locals do.
Phil Wood

Phil Wood, Pt Leo Estate (Merricks, Victoria)

Having grown up on a hobby farm outside Christchurch, Phil Wood is somewhat accustomed to living among the local fauna. As a child, he earned pocket money by raising orphaned lambs or, wait for it, picking the wool off dead sheep to sell. But having to wait for stray cows or kangaroos to move off the road on the drive home after dinner service at Pt Leo Estate on the Mornington Peninsula was still something of a shock for a chef who had spent much of his adult life in Sydney.
"I never anticipated I'd have to call people at work and let them know there are a lot of kangaroos on the road," he says. On the flipside, the former Eleven Bridge chef relishes being closer to the producers that his restaurants rely on. "It's definitely given me a different perspective on seasons and how farmers operate." His favourite discovery, though, is the coffee at the local general stores found on the Peninsula. "They know me as double-espresso guy."
Seth James

Seth James, Wills Domain (Margaret River, Western Australia)

To hear Seth James talk about the corner of south-west WA he's settled in, you might find yourself questioning your own life choices. Swims in secluded rockpools along the rugged Yallingup coastline and afternoons spent diving or on the pier catching squid. No wonder the chef has happily spent five years in the area after doing time at Botanical, Cutler & Co and the Aylesbury in Melbourne. Not that James is quite a local just yet. "I've been told it takes 10 years to be part of the community," he says.
It wasn't a natural fit in the beginning. Arriving in Dunsborough on a Friday night, the then 27-year-old got a rude shock when he wandered into town after 8pm to look for somewhere to eat and perhaps buy a bottle of wine. It was to no avail. "I went back to the house to call friends and I had no reception. I was like, 'This is a nightmare'." Fast-forward to today and he's embraced the slower pace of life, rising early, spending more time outdoors and enjoying a job without double shifts. And he never goes for a walk without a stick in hand to scare off snakes. "It's the first thing you do: you make sure you've got something to make some noise with."
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  • Author: Emma Breheny & Fiona Donnelly