Bret Cameron, executive chef, Harvest Newrybar
There is so much food around us, both native and wild. The native foods of Australia are incredible ...
Hailing from Dunedin in New Zealand, Bret Cameron is one of the country’s most prominent chefs, heading up the renowned restaurant, cafe, deli and bakery that is Harvest Newrybar. Armed with vibrancy and incredible passion, Bret is pushing the boundaries when it comes to food. Not only is he enhancing the culinary goodness that we’ve come to know and love at Harvest, he’s also trying to change people’s perceptions and reconnect them with real food. And he’s doing it – one plate at a time. Bret took time out ahead of his weekly Wild Harvest session to chat to us about foraging, native foods and aspirations of becoming a weatherman.
Was food a big part of your childhood?
Yeah, it was a big part. Growing up, we always grew our own vegetables and had fruit trees in the back yard. We had a massive plum tree that used to go crazy. All of my family are really good cooks. My grandfather used to say, “Bret, if I could live my life again, I’d be a chef and travel the world.” That didn’t really resonate with me until later on in life. All of my uncles and aunties used to live on farms, so every school holidays I’d get shipped off to the farms, so I knew from a younger age where food came from. It was embedded in me from a young age, without knowing.
You’ve been working with ‘forager’ Peter Hardwick – tell us a bit more about the concept of foraging and the exploration of local ingredients?
I guess it’s just a level of awareness and know what’s around you, and what is actually food and what isn’t. Everyone has kind of been brainwashed into thinking that all of your food comes from a supermarket and its wrapped in plastic, and your meat comes cut and ready – and that has made people a little detached. I guess what I am trying to do is give people that connection with food again. Since working with Peter though, it’s opened up a whole other kettle of fish for me – there is so much food around us, both native and wild. The native foods of Australia are incredible. If someone had told me when I first started my chef career 20-odd years ago, that after 19 years of cooking, you’re going to be introduced to a whole new direction of flavour profiles and ingredients, I would have said ‘no way’. That’s exactly what’s happened. We’ve been working closely with Peter for just over a year now, and he’s still bringing in new stuff that people have never heard of before. There is so much more out there that we don’t know about. There is so much more discovery to be made about native foods. When we do go foraging, we take what we need. We’re very careful. You need to be protective of the trees and make sure they will continue to produce the next year. We have a very sustainable ethos.
How was this changed your approach to the menu development at Harvest?
The flavours make you really think of everything. I’ve had to turn my way of thinking upside down really. A lot of ingredients we come across, in their raw form, are not pleasant to eat. They are either really acidic or bitter, so we process them in different ways, like drying or fermenting – there are lots of different methods. What we’re trying to do here at Harvest is put these ingredients into a familiar setting, where they don’t scare people. I want people to be able to have these ingredients and taste them, but then think – you know what, I can actually do this at home. That’s my goal, for that to happen. To try and get the knowledge out there, because people are, in a way, scared of native foods. But they are amazing – and that’s just talking about the flavours, let alone the health benefits. It’s ridiculous how good these native ingredients are for you.
What are some of the ingredients that you love to work with at the moment?
At the moment we have Davidson plums fruiting. We do loads of different things with them. Something that’s really different is ‘dooja limes’, or round limes. It’s like a cross between a finger lime and a kaffir lime. They are really, really aromatic. It’s round like a normal green lime, but the skin has these crazy aromats to it, and when you open it up, you can peel the whole thing, so there are no piths fixed to the lime. You can break apart the segments, and they fall apart like a finger lime does. Then, when you eat it, you get explosions … in your mouth! I got introduced about a year ago, I was out with two other chefs and we saw the last one on the tree, we picked it, had a look and tasted it – and we were like, why haven’t we seen this before!
You host Wild Harvest every Wednesday night, where you present a menu with a series of ideas and flavours that are developed after a day of foraging. How does it all come together?
It’s our little test kitchen really – it’s our chance to go out on a limb and do some crazy stuff. For us, we start throwing ideas around on the Tuesday of what we might have or can get, and what Peter brings in. We sit down and really nut it out on a Wednesday morning – come 5:00 pm on a Wednesday, we have a better idea of what it’s going to be. We all run the food out and talk through the ingredients – everyone wants to work that night, it’s lots of fun!
What is it that’s inspiring you in the kitchen at the moment?
At the moment, I am riding on a high of native ingredients and the new flavours. It’s so interesting – I am still learning new things, and I am still really excited by the whole prospect of it.
If you weren’t a chef, what occupation would you love to have?
Two things. I would be a weatherman. I love weather … I am fascinated by it! I always have been. I find it amazing – it’s always changing, there is always something new. The other would be a pro surfer, but I’m not really good enough.
Where would we find you on a day off?
At the beach in the surf, or running around foraging stuff … and cooking. I’m a Kiwi, so I do love to cook a good braised lamb shoulder or a leg of lamb at home. You can’t really take that out of a Kiwi.
I feel like you would have some pretty decent secret surf spots …
Yeah, and I’m never going to tell you! No way. Then every bugger from the Gold Coast will be down there! So, we’ll leave them as ‘secret spots’.