“I think the ultimate sustainability is when you walk out into your garden and pick everything for your own lunch or dinner. If you need something else, ask your next door neighbour who may be growing something you don’t have. ”
– Justin Wells of Two Skinny Cooks, on food sustainability
On our trip to the Southern Highlands this autumn 2012, we visited the beautiful country towns of Bowral, Berrima, Moss Vale, Sutton Forest and Burrawang among so many others. Our previous blogposts from our 2012 trip include:
We also discovered a new cafe in the heart of Berrima town which is run by a couple of passionate chefs who used to operate Strangers With Candy in Redfern.
Veronica Stute and Justin Wells traded their Sydney lifestyle by making that tree-change move to Berrima and started Two Skinny Cooks, a cafe serving the freshest of local ingredients from their very own farm.
I caught up with Justin to find out how the “skinny cooks” are doing, what inspires their food and their passion for creating mouth-watering meals using the freshest of local produce.
Interview with Justin Wells
Chopinand: You already owned a property in Berrima that supplied fresh vegetables when you were still running Strangers With Candy in Redfern, Sydney. What was the most significant reason that made you both decide to make the permanent move to set up Two Skinny Cooks in the Southern Highlands?
JW: We were renovating the house in Berrima at the same time and were doing it ourselves so it took around four years to complete. During this time we set it up as a guest house for a Friday & Saturday night stay. The goal was for it to be a long term guest house, but one day we looked at each other and decided, “Why don’t we live here?” We quickly sold Strangers with Candy and realised our new goal. After a bit of time off we started working on the concept of Two Skinny Cooks.
Chopinand: You have a wonderful food concept where ingredients come directly from your farm and many items on your menu can also be found on the retail shelves at your café. Can you share with our readers about how your customers have responded to this fresh food philosophy?
JW: Customers absolutely love it. They realise after tasting our products & café menu that fresh produce really does make a difference. They are amazed (as am I) about the flavours produced from vegetables harvested within hours of use, not weeks or months, as in most of the supermarket varieties.
All of the vegetables we grow are Heirloom varieties from seed savers around the world as well as here in Australia. Heirlooms are plants that have stood the test of time with exceptional flavour, high yields and a long harvest season. These are very different plants to the ‘Supermarket Variety’ hybrids which are created for long storage life and aesthetics rather than freshness and flavour.
Chopinand: Although both of you have worked together before setting up your own business, I think our readers will be interested to know what is it like for two life partners to be in business together. Can you share some of your thrills and spills, the most annoying (if any) and most satisfying moments of working together as a couple?
JW: There is the old saying that opposites attract in a relationship to create the perfect match (pure Darwinism in action). In a business couple this same principle can produce an amazing synergistic effect with each having an array of different skills and attributes for the business, but sometimes these ‘skills & attributes’ need to be held in check for the good of the business, (we all know what can happen in a normal relationship without the added stress of the business environment). To solve this problem we came up with the concept of ‘The wall’.
Originally at Strangers we were working together in the kitchen but soon realised that we needed to be separated by a physical wall of bricks and mortar to stop us from killing each other when things went wrong. I went to the floor side and honed my skills as the Barista & Restaurant Manager, Veronica stayed in the kitchen, luckily, as she is an amazing chef and her passion and skill with food still astounds me. When we set up Two Skinny Cooks we used the same principle of ‘The wall’ to give our new venture, and our own sanity a fighting chance.
Chopinand: A food business often involves long hours but you have indicated that you organise your time according to your own pace. What would be the key difference of running a busy Sydney restaurant like Strangers With Candy compared to your current business at Two Skinny Cooks?
JW: When we renovated the house in Berrima we knocked out all the walls and made it open plan which overlooks our gardens. We included a large kitchen and dining area which allows us to do a lot of our work at home in a nice environment. In Sydney we were always stuck at the restaurant for 10 – 12 hours or more. We still do 12 hour days and are actually busier than when we were in Sydney, but it’s a lot more enjoyable here in the country rather than being stuck in the ‘rat race’.
Chopinand: We loved the salmon and smoked cod pie and understand it is one of Veronica’s favourite recipes too. Can you share with us what inspired this beautiful dish?
JW: Veronica’s mother of eight children is the inspiration for this dish. ‘Shark Pie’ as it was affectionately known was a main stay on her family’s menu. This fluffy puff pastry and layers of cheesy parsley infused salmon mornay was something Veronica wanted to introduce to her menu for a long time and the temperate zone of The Southern Highlands was the perfect place for such a comforting meal.
Chopinand: You have some photos of the beautiful ingredients from your farm on your website. What would be your favourite ingredients to cook with and why?
JW: Garlic, peacharines, rocket and tomatoes. We are about to plant 500 garlic cloves for this season as last years crop was so flavoursome and delicious it made us realise what a truly amazing vegetable garlic is when fresh from the ground.
Our peacharines are a cross of peach/nectarine and are beautiful freshly picked from the tree, when they all ripen at once it’s bottling time and we get to make our own jam and preserves.
Garden grown rocket changes flavour with the weather – a hot day produces a spicy, peppery tang – a cold day produces a smoother nuttier flavour. When picked on different days and added together for a salad the combination can be divine. We grow only heirloom varieties of tomatoes which are all open pollinated allowing us to reuse our own seed every year. These tomatoes have a wonderful flavour and texture and are very different from anything you can buy from a supermarket.
Chopinand: We notice that many beautiful cafes and restaurants in the country have their own herbs and vegetable patch or their own farms that supply fresh local produce for their kitchens. What are your views on using local produce, sustainability and supporting local producers?
JW: I think the ultimate sustainability is when you walk out into your garden and pick everything for your own lunch or dinner. If you need something else ask your next door neighbour who may be growing something you don’t have. Then buy from the small farmer down the road.
These pockets of local sustanability reduce the food miles travelled by a massive degree and local produce is always fresher and much better cared for by the small farmer who is a lot more ethical when supplying to their local community.
Chopinand: Berrima is a quaint and beautiful little town.
Do you get a lot of tourists visiting your café and what would you say is their proportion compared to locals?
JW: Yes we get a lot of tourists visiting Berrima, but the funny thing is a lot of these people are our old customers from Strangers with Candy who take a day trip away from the city mayhem to visit us for a relaxing meal and country getaway. We also have a lot of locals from the larger neighboring towns like Bowral & Mittagong doing the same thing and taking some time out in a beautiful country setting.
Chopinand: Berrima is quite a tree-change from the “big-smoke” of Sydney. Is there anything that you miss about living in a big city and what would be your advice to city slickers looking to relocate to the country?
JW: The Southern Highlands is made up of three major towns – Bowral, Mittagong and Moss Vale, which are then surrounded by a series of small villages – Berrima, Exeter, Bundanoon, Burrawang etc. The major towns give you everything you get from the ‘Big Smoke’ and the villages give you that amazing country diversity.
We picked Berrima to work and live because it was so peaceful and old worldly yet still had that hospitality and friendliness you get from a village that survives on looking after everybody and keeping them coming back.
My advice for a city slicker is to start with a small block of 1/2 to 1 acre as this is already a lot of work to look after. Then, in a couple of years time look at a 5 acre block when you know what your getting yourself into. Chain saws and trimmers are very dangerous so be careful when you buy all those new power tools.
Chopinand: Do you talk about food and what do you both do to relax on your days off?
JW: We haven’t actually had a day off yet since we started Two Skinny Cooks. The Cafe is as busy now as Strangers was and we also make our own retail line of products which we do at home on our ‘days off’.
We do get interrupted by our neighbors a lot though which forces us to stop work and think about wine and food in a different way. That’s when we get to enjoy all the hard work and effort by relaxing, chatting and dining with friends in what we think is the ‘best place in the world’.
So dear readers, have you been to the Southern Highlands and if so, which is your favourite town there?
Two Skinny Cooks
11 Olf Hume Highway
Berrima, New South Wales 2577
Tel: +61 2 4877 2913