Interview with Melinda Dimitriades. At the time of this interview in 2013 her company was called Farmgate. It's now Chop Shop Carnivorium.
I got into food by mistake because I got kicked out of my house for being queer. So I walked up and down Oxford Street, my new neighborhood, and found a job making coffee – what I now know to be really bad coffee. I already had an interest in cookery. I watched all the badly produced cooking shows of the day, 1991. As an adolescent I used to talk to the wall of my Grandmother’s house in an American accent from my mudpie kitchen, pretending I had my own cooking show.
So at this coffee place I stuck my head into the kitchen to see what was happening. I loved watching cookery. I didn’t have a sense of my own palate, only that I was inspired by my mother’s gift of amazing Greek food. I was very keen on watching technique. About 2 months later the cook decided to walk out and by then I knew how to do the job, so i stepped into the kitchen. Then I decided shortly after that I was gonna give it a go. I was on the way to a law degree, but i decided to give cookery a go. So I went to the better café across the road, and then a couple months after that I went to a really good place in Double Bay. I got offered an apprenticeship, which I declined because during that time I was in the throes of my first love relationship and my cousin committed suicide. So I left double bay. I picked myself up and went to work at a bunch of other places, and learned that if i wanted to be good at it I had to chase the hatted chefs who were known for good technique. I developed an interest in provincial Italian and French bistro-style food, so I chased those chefs. I did that for about 7 years all up. Then I got cast in a short film and really enjoyed it and I decided to give acting a go, enrolled in Ensemble Theatre for a 3 year associate diploma in acting. I needed a day job and restaurants weren’t a day job, and at that point I decided restaurant life wasn’t compatible with my lark disposition. So I got a job for the premier artisan and farmhouse cheese distributors in Sydney. I found my thing.
How did you know?
I got it. I understood the way it was made, I understood the flavour profiling. I just got it. It’s a whole world. I had met my first mentor there. I met someone who got me. So we developed what became a 15 year friendship as colleagues, as confidantes, sharing ideas. We totally trusted and respected each other's palate. And had a relationship that was very sensual, sympatico. After that I got offered a job managing a similar business, and then I decided to move overseas to London, and there i worked at the Borough market. My interest at this point in farming and artisanal production was increasing. Whilst i was cooking I would study recipe books for the technique by virtue of looking at the ingredients and figuring out how things worked together and then beyond that i started to read about farming and about ingredients.
So when i went to London I worked at the Borough market for an Italian artisan cheese and small goods company which also wholesaled to all the top chefs, including Gordon Ramsey as well as the discerning and educated customers of the Borough market. It was there that I got a sense of the rare breed movement in terms of the meat sutff. And I also discovered the subtle flavour profiles of artisanal small goods and charcuterie as well as the possibilities of farmhouse Italian cheeses, which we don’t get to see here because of raw milk issues. I’m an Italophile at heart.
So 8 months later I came back to Sydney back to my old job, but I started importing dried mushrooms, I had a mushroom and fungus import permit and a cheese and curd import permit. I started importing my own stuff, because I realized we were getting ripped off here. I’m slowly exposed to cheese, small goods, mushrooms. I started importing mushrooms, saffron, vanilla beans. Cheese was a disaster, so I kept to the other three.
Then I came back to my old job for a couple of months, and then got a job managing a boutique game meat and birds and small goods distributor. We sourced wood pigeon, Muscovy ducks, pheasant, guinea fowl, pure pekin, rare breed pork, venison, saltbush lamb, nitrate free small goods, chemical hormone free free range turkeys, we were the exclusive agents of the famous Barossa chook, and unbelievable rabbits.
My knowledge of meat and birds was limited to my cookery, so I was on a steep learning curve in terms of what makes something special, the provenance, the feed, age, meat texture, structure of the fat. I learned all this stuff. I had to pitch this stuff to top chefs and food store operators in Sydney. I visited a bunch of the farms and I kept reading, but more intensely. Of course it meant a different relationship, a more intense relationship, to my own cookery. What cut I would use, how I would use it, what breed I would go for. I’m cooking for my own pleasure, but I’ve got a different relationship to produce because I’m looking at it from a different perspective. I’m told now we were ahead of our time. The stuff we were doing was so particular and so fucking good. So I did that for 3.5 years and then I bought the business from Robert Armstrong, with my mentor Lynn and her business partner.
I also learned about olive oil and became accredited as an extra virgin olive oil judge for the Australian olive association. Robert was becoming an olive oil and table olive producer. He taught me about olive oil. We rebranded Nicholas Foods to Affineur. It was going to continue on, but we were going to add maturing and curing methods for cheeses that Lynn and i had developed. We built an affinage, walk in freezer, and cool room. Unfortunately a year later the business partnership severed. I started my own business called Farmgate.
When I worked with Lynn at Australia on a Plate, we serviced all of the high end restaurants and food stores. And also were part of the first farmers market at Pyrmont and the North Sydney Northside produce market. That’s when I got my first taste of retail, selling to the retail public, and the wonderful atmosphere of a farmers market. My natural hawker selling style was in heaven. I’d found my market.
Australia on a Plate’s namesake suggests that they were interested in supporting home grown artisanal chesemakers, and so there was that connect between the market and the primary producer. So I got to meet a lot of the cheesemakers. I guess running parallel to that there was this mother daughter mentor-student relationship going on, dealing with mothers milk. I really enjoyed discussing farming with farmers. I enjoyed discussing technical stuff with cheesemakers. All of the planets were starting to align for me, farming and technique a bit of chemistry in terms of food production. I was brought into the world that I belonged in in terms of the food scene.
Then the farmers market, at the other end of the chain is actually telling this story, communicating this gorgeous story to the people that we were helping to feed. People who were particular about where their food came, how it was farmed, and the story. I fell in love with the story and I became a storyteller and I really enjoyed that part too. And it was a hell of a lot easier than dealing with chefs’ egos.
The other thing that I got to do was to use my cookery skills and to pair things with cheese. Really odd combinations. I got to play. I’d often make things that we could then take to the market and sell with cheese. Lynn and i we’d come up with an idea –we had imported product as well– so we’d get a whole wheel of gorgonzola, hollow out the wheel and pour spiced cherry compote into it, and sell it like ice cream. Things like marrying the same gorgonzola cheese with toffee, served in an ice cream cone. Really silly playful stuff.
During my time as manager of Nicholas foods, I went back in the farmers markets selling cheeses that I was buying from Australia on a Plate and a lot of the small goods and charcuterie. I bought from both companies and sold on my own.
I loved being at the markets, working those markets. It was a great way to earn even more money. I was in my money earning peak. I had the energy to work a shitload. I felt really energetic about work. It was a way of making money that was my own business, in the morning which suits me, and in an environment that I loved. I had loads of energy to expend and it meant being a hawker.
Affineur was going to be an amalgam of mine and Lynn’s respect for each others palate, playfulness, value-adding, and then doing things that even the chesemakers haven’t even thought about. We pared this French blue cheese with coffeegrounds. We were going to use seaweed, brewing ingredients like hops and barley, roasted at different stages, as a way of macerating cheese. Using ciders, injecting them and then solidifying them, so the gel accompaniment is actually inside.
So when I took over Affineur, I’d given away all the other markets, but that’s when Eveleigh started and they asked us to take a stall and sell the certified organic Berkshire chemical free small goods. So we did that and every fortnight we’d turn up and everyone loved it, and I was a total character and everyone loved our stall. It was fun, the food was fabulous, amazing, clean, story, excellent flavour. Salamis that were chemical free. I developed a range of small goods. They came to us with ham and bacon, so I hooked them up with a processor who would buy the pigs from this couple who had the only certified organic pigs in Australia.
When the partnership and Affineur ended, I took a stall at Fox Studios selling the same stuff. At that point I realized I needed to expand my offer to fresh meat and it was now my living so I needed to make more. It was a continuation of what I was already doing as an aside. I needed to keep doing what I was doing. It was a case of keep going.
So I engaged a butcher and got him buying the pigs and making stuff out of the fresh pork. And again my cookery skills and talent for making things taste delicious, I would make suggestions. He gazumped me, so I learned how to do it myself. (He decided to compete with me in my own market.) I also started providing home delivery to the customers that I met through the market. It was pretty good, so good that he wanted in on the action. The next guy after him was ripping me off too because i didn’t know how to make money out of a carcass. You need to learn to use every little bit to make money. So I basically figured that I needed to have full control of this little business that was building quite nicely. So i learned how to do the butchering myself and make these things myself.
I’d met a bunch of people in the meat business, so I got the best butcher that I knew to train me and then I took a shop so I could have my own space to do it. That’s when it got my shop in Waterloo. Both my parents died in this time.
Farmgate opened in June 2011, it’s open 3 days a week and then we do three Saturday markets. Three employees in the shop working in the shop and at the market.
It’s another level of serious education in butchery. How to butcher pigs, how to make things. There are different ideas you can employ when you’re dealing with meat. My own edge has continued to expand, and I make stuff. That’s very satisfying, to come up with ideas, to be creative. I love cooking meat anyway, and this pork is such a joy to cook, it’s such a gorgeous product. Anther thing to become expert at.
I was always destined to be my own boss because I’m a leader, and I’m a concepts person. I’m quite innovative. You need that. You need to have that, especially in small business. But it’s really hard. It’s almost impossible, really difficult at the moment.
I think Australia is very poor in the cultural relationship to eating. So you don’t have this strong entrenched food culture, provenance culture, and respect and understanding about farming and farmers and produce from farms. The fact that most people live on the seaboard, on the coast (and the reverse of that is true in Europe) people don’t have a relationship to regions. There’s not even a relationship with regional food. We don’t understand which part of Australia is native to which food. We’ve got varietals that are native to Australia, for example heirloom peaches are from Golden, macadamias are native to Lismore. Certain things grow in certain climates, these are the seasons. We haven’t got a history of companion planting farming and eating.
We don’t have a culture of marrying things together in regional terms. There doesn’t seem to be cooperation even between farmers within regions. It’s like everyone is operating on their own in a vacuum. Producers, farmers... So it’s like these satellite gorgeous things happening, but not a movement. It’s not brought together. In France, for example in the North in the Normandie region where it’s quite cool, they’re known for their dairy product, cows milk cheese and butter. In the same region they grow the apples to make calvados. And the apples get paired with the cheeses from the same region. Another example is gorgonzola comes from the North, Lombardy, of which Milan is the capital, and that's where they grow polenta, so polenta with gorgonzola sauce.
So why it’s hard for my little business is because whilst Master Chef and My Kitchen Rules has created ‘chefs’ in their domestic sphere, and have an interest in cookery, those programs are sponsored by supermarkets. And so suddenly there’s a link between cooking well and getting the product from the supermarket. And the supermarkets use these shows as advertisement to claim even more market share. They are aligning themselves with top chefs who do not source their meats and produce from supermarkets because the quality wouldn’t be good enough. But there’s an association that’s created. So whilst these programs are using our traditional ambassadors (chefs) who demand good produce and the story, so overall the supermarkets hijack our cause.
Whilst we’ve been ticking away in the background supporting farmers telling the story about clean food, ethical farming, properly aged meat, pure ingredients, the supermarkets come along and overwhelm us with what is sexy marketing.
The produce that I represent is what guarantees gorgeous food being cooked at home as well as all the ethical stuff. I don’t pump water into my pork or use 40% meals in my sausages. Meat that’s pumped with water, beef that is not aged at all, heaven forbid hat it should lose weight and money! Whilst you end up with a product that is 30-50% cheaper, but you’re paying low prices for water! You’re paying ice cream prices for 150% air that gets whipped in. You’re paying beef that’s waterlogged, hasn’t aged, hasn’t tenderized naturally.
I can’t compete with that. I can’t ever keep ahead of the story that’s being pedaled. Chefs as ambassadors. Most beef doesn’t even have hormone in it, they create an antidote for something that isn’t happening. Most of that meat is grain fed. That’s sick animals, stuffing them like foie gras with corn that we’ve got too much of.
I’m barely making it because few people are willing to pay the prices. When you’ve got produce that’s water-infused, or ice cream with air in it. You eat more of it because the flavour is not there. The meat bit is supposed to be the smaller part on the plate, not the majority part.
I don’t get what it’s like to have to buy produce for a family of four. I don’t understand that. Some of the greatest dishes in the world are peasant food dishes, or things that use secondary cuts, or things that use leftover from that chicken, where you are constantly coming up with ways of feeding your family well but in our case with your ethics intact. If people knew that cows are desperately sick from eating grain, and you’re watching your child putting that in their mouth, and you look at all the health problems, the industrial food system has removed us so much from food as nature intended it. We are machines that are gobbling, trying to get calories, high caloric food with zero nutritional value. We’re filling ourselves up with rubbish. Sick and waterlogged animals, and high calorific food.
And I think the thing also which is the new message about ethical farming is that it’s an environmental issue now. The amount of shit that gets pumped into the environment through the pools of waste from feedlot cows, etc. Industrial food production, is now an environmental issue as well as an ethical issue.
And the Gascogne paradox... The Gascogne region of France is second just behind Japanese in their health levels. But their diet is full of saturated fats. It’s the home of foie gras. They eat full fat as nature intended.
A lot of the farmers markets are run by people who are not foodies. The management. This is a problem. They don’t know their stuff. In other cases its so political, for example I approached Eveleigh and said I want to put a pig on a spit. “No we’ve got too much hot food.” I want to sell my sausage rolls hot. If I could do that I could sell so much more meat than I am, but they believe they’ve got too much hot food.
There are artisan blacksmiths who work on that land.
There’s no government certification for organics or free range. No government at any level that is driving this stuff in Australia.
There needs to be a total rethink from the top. Government policy about farming, about farmers. We need help. It’s not looking good.
I got a guy who grows Berkshire pigs in Breadbow, works for the Dept of Ag. He’s converting his farm into permaculture farming. Most of the topsoil on Australian farms is gone. There’s a bullshit perception that we’re the foodbasket of Asia, but we’re fucked unless we change the way we do things and support farmers. Whilst the subsidizing program in the US is not a good model because it encourages farming of crops that don’t regenerate, but the seeds are Monsanto, there is a food production subsidy program that the EU uses. It’s a better program. There’s not enough value here because there needs to be a retake on how food gets to us that needs to come to government. Australian industry is known as primary, mining, wool, send it elsewhere. In Australia there’s a problem with farmers not value-adding. I believe that it’s because we don’t have these food traditions. If we’d stuck to our British colonial heritage, we were built on British cuisine. If we’d stuck to that we’d be in a different position than we’re in now.
Melinda sent me from the interview with 4kilos of pig fat. If you wanted to know how I handled that, read the recipe...