It’s hard to imagine a world in which we can’t get bananas all year ’round, where a restaurant’s menu is as unpredictable as the weather patterns and as variable as the seasons, where we eat what the planet provides and not what we demand it grows.
This very modern concept, of wanting a continual supply of produce regardless of its natural growth period, is not only unnatural but also unhealthy. Pesticides and fertilisers are employed to make crops that can be harvested as much as four times as frequently as nature intended and the fruit and vegetables produced are often bereft of nutritional content – force-grown, bigger, faster, longer for the masses.
The Eatery on Jonson, as in its former incarnation as Why Not? recognises this, taking a ‘100-mile’ approach as much as possible, that is, sourcing as much produce as possible from within a one hundred mile radius – locally grown, naturally farmed, trying to keep it as nature intended. And now, they have gone one step further.
Brothers Jules and Che Devlin have been co-owners of the Fig Tree at Ewingsdale and The Eatery‘s predecessor, Why Not? for almost a decade. Why Not? was the public face of the partnership – in the heart of town, offering delicious dishes and superb coffee – while the Fig Tree was, and remains, a venue for weddings and events.
A couple of years ago, Jules decided a change was needed. Having seen one blushing bride and one sweating groom too many, he parted ways with his brother, separating the businesses and establishing The Eatery on Jonson as his restaurant exclusively.
“We started the Fig Tree together and then, about eight years ago, we started Why Not? Last year, we decided to split the businesses – Che took the Fig Tree and I took this,” says Jules, sipping a coffee in The Eatery‘s bustling dining room. “I was a bit over doing the weddings, to be perfectly honest. That was my main role, but after six years and two or three hundred weddings, I wanted to get back into the cafe game.”
While the brothers remain close, their business lives have digressed, but certain connections remain. Shortly after establishing the Fig Tree, Jules and Che offered Garden Market Nights, sourcing produce from the Byron farmers’ market and creating a menu exclusively around what they had purchased that day.
“We had a couple of apprentices up there [at the Fig Tree] and we thought it’d be a good idea to show them the market,” Jules recalls. “I’d come down with them and walk them through the market, we’d collect what we needed, drive back up to the Fig Tree and get stuck into it and make up a two or three or four course menu based on the produce.”
Though the venue changed, the principles did not, and now the same concept is being offered at The Eatery. Every Thursday, Jules visits the Byron farmers’ market, gathers groceries and crafts a menu accordingly. But this is only half of the story.
Always valuing local, fresh produce, the brothers established a kitchen garden at the Fig Tree. Beans, greens, tomatoes, cabbages and chilis all stand to attention in neat rows, herbs and garnishes – edible flowers such as nasturtiums, violas and pineapple sage – adding to an abundance of colour and fragrance and a copse of citrus trees stands sentinel over the garden. Although primarily for the Fig Tree, the garden produces far more than the one restaurant could possibly require, so Jules receives a homegrown delivery every week.
The garden is lovingly tended by the resident gardener, Thomas. Hand-picked from a pool of 150 applicants, Thomas has spent decades tending garden, teaching and lecturing on the subject and now pours his love and attention into the Fig Trees raised beds of crops. Fig Tree‘s head chef, Dan, as well as Jules, regularly spend an hour or so chatting with Thomas, discovering which plants will be in season and placing requests for certain ingredients.
“It’s nice to be limited by nature’s bounty,” says Jules, commenting on the evening’s menus, which regularly sell out. “We always have sustainably-farmed salmon from Tasmania, but then we also have locally caught fish. We’ll never have snapper or barramundi or tuna on the menu. Pork we get from Singhs’ Byron Bay Pork – we always have a meat option and a vegetarian option as well.”
Cooked simply, allowing the natural flavours of the vegetables and meat to sing, the dishes present the produce exquisitely. Blanched or steamed veggies pop in your mouth, softened but with a delectable crunch and a taste so vibrant you could almost be forgiven for thinking its fake! Carrot soup is at once robust and delicate, rich yet subtle, the freshness of the local harvest engorging the dish.
This is the beauty of utilising local, fresh and organic crops. We have become used to bland, washed-out fruit and veggies that require enhancement and seasoning. But with day-fresh produce, you can simplify, allowing the flavours to stand alone, more than fragrant and delicious enough in their own right. That isn’t to say The Eatery‘s Thursday Garden Market menu is just a collection of unseasoned salads. Jules, along with his superb chefs, creates complex combinations of ingredients, the fresh meat and produce definitely the lead singer, but with an extensive backing band to create a symphony of flavour.
The Eatery‘s Thursday Garden Market Night is something unique, a wonderful exposé of the incredible wealth of fresh, local, organic produce available to us. But it is not an exclusive concept on The Eatery‘s weekly menu, as Jules explains:
“That’s pretty much the whole ethos of the restaurant – serving local, sustainable food, organic or home-grown and with a pretty high emphasis on nutritional content. My view on food is that not only should it taste really good, but it should also feed the body with what you need in vitamins, minerals and so on. I like to treat it as pleasurable first and foremost, but then it must also be good for your body.”
Unlike many restaurants, The Eatery stands by its principles. If they sell out of a particular dish or ingredient they won’t source inferior or non-organic produce just to keep the dish on the menu. While they don’t claim to be one hundred percent organic, they do the very best they can and it is from this lofty benchmark that they will not retreat.
As a Byron local, Jules wants to support the local community in every way he can, from the food he sources to the staff he employs and onward into his life outside work. His Garden Market Nights are a reflection of this – keeping things local, keeping things organic, redefining good food in a return to how its meant to be.
All photos: SubCutanea