The Dreamers.

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Katrina Birchmeier

‘Garagistes’ is the moniker given to a group of renegade French winemakers in the Bordeaux region who challenged tradition and began making innovative wines from their basements and garages. A similar non-comformist spirit is strong in a Hobart restaurant of the same name, which, fuelled by a passion for local produce, opened the doors of its converted shed in 2010. At first, its owners – ex-Sydneysiders Katrina Birchmeier and Luke Burgess – began to question their decision to challenge the conversative dining scene of the Tasmanian capital. But ever so slowly, Garagistes has become not only a jewel in Hobart’s culinary crown, but one of the most exciting additions to Australia’s food scene. 

What was your childhood dream?
I always thought I’d own my own business, but I wanted to be a bit more of a high flyer, managing five-star hotels around the world!

What inspired you to follow the path into food and wine?
I worked in hospitality to get myself through university – I worked at Kingsleys and from there I moved to Bills in Darlinghurst and then to Longrain in Surry Hills. It was while I was working at Longrain in 2006 that Luke and I made the decision that we were going to move down to Hobart.

Why Hobart in particular?
It was a little bit random in a way. Luke is a chef and we saw a lot of great ingredients from Tasmania in Sydney and we wanted to have a bit of a quieter life – although it hasn’t really turned out that way! Our idea was to set up a little restaurant in the countryside. We didn’t know anyone in Tasmania but we thought it was the kind of place where we could be closer to the source of the ingredients we were using. In mid-2007 we opened a small cafe called Pecora at Birchs Bay, and Luke basically gathered all of his ingredients from around that area. There was a local fisherman, a local pork supplier, and the mother of one of the young girls who worked for us grew lots of vegetables and herbs – we also used to raid our fisherman’s garden!

How did Garagistes come into being?
We did Pecora for about nine months and then decided we’d like to do something in Hobart. We pretty much spent two years looking for a site and we also travelled overseas in that time to get an idea of what was happening in the food and wine world. In February 2010 we came across the site we’re in now as Garagistes, and we opened in September 2010. It was basically a shed with nothing in it – a blank canvas – so it took us six months to get it to what it is today.

What attracted you to that space?
In some ways, it was a case of we didn’t really know what we were looking for until we stumbled across it. We looked at a lot of old corner stores and things like that, but there were always restrictions with heritage listings.

How did your travels influence your concept for Garagistes?
Luke was inspired by a lot of the flavours in Japan and also the minimalist design and the simplicity of some of the food. We also went to Spain, France and Italy, and in those areas we were more inspired by the wines. We were on the search for natural wines, which are a bit contentious in the wine industry, but I think a lot of people don’t know that there are a lot of additives in wine. We wanted wines that were grown organically or bio-dynamically without additives and using minimal intervention and natural yeasts. In Europe there are a lot more smaller family producers, whereas in the New World in Australia and America, it’s a lot more commercialised. We found a lot of small wine bars in France with really different wines, and that’s when I really got interested in it. There was a purity in their flavour that really inspired me.

Was the name ‘Garagistes’ inspired by the French winemakers?
It ended up having a double meaning. A ‘garagiste’ is a mechanic and there is also the Garagiste wine movement that started in the Bordeaux region. We don’t actually list any Bordeaux wines, but we were inspired by the concept of what the Garagistes were – small-scale producers doing it for the love of it.

You have a very community-focused ethos – what inspired that philosophy?
In a way, we created a place where we’d like to eat and drink. We like the shared food aspect and the casual no-bookings policy. The communal seating came from the fact that those sorts of tables suited the space! I couldn’t imagine having lots of little tables in this big space.

Why is local food such a focus for you?
Well, fresh food doesn’t travel well and here we can pick carrots a day before we serve them, so the flavour of the vegetable is so much better. A lot of the food that gets flown into Tasmania gets sprayed in quarantine, so we like the fact that we know how our food has been grown. We also buy a lot of heirloom vegetables that aren’t commercially available.

Which dishes are inspiring you?
I love the dishes that Luke makes that showcase interesting or heirloom vegetables. There’s a Char-grilled Padron with Goat’s Horn Peppers, Fino Sherry and Kampot Pepper Dressing, and also a Caramelised Salsify with Buttermilk and Cheese Sauce, Fried Bread and Radicchio Hearts.

What has been your greatest challenge?
With Garagistes, it was opening in quite a conservative market and having communal dining and shared food – not entrees and mains – as well as the no-bookings policy. We actually started questioning our decision to do this when we first opened, especially having a wine list that didn’t focus on Tasmanian wines, which was a challenge for local people to become accustomed to. But we’ve definitely managed to build a reputation. At first, a lot of people felt out of their comfort zone coming here, but it’s about having staff who can talk people through the menu and the wine list – and make them feel comfortable by showing them that it’s not unusual.

What has been your greatest achievement?
I was just selected this year as one of six national finalists for the ‘Electrolux Young Restaurateur of the Year’ and the final judging will be in August. I’m just happy to have been selected as a finalist! Whether I win or not isn’t really important, but just to be recognised on a national level is amazing.

Who inspires you?
In the restaurant industry, I find Kylie Kwong quite inspiring with her approach to food, and to the restaurant, and her commitment to fairtrade and organic and basing food around those concepts. She is just such a lovely woman. There’s also a wine bar in Sydney called 121 BC, which is run by Giorgio De Maria, and I find him extremely inspiring when it comes to wine.

What inspires you?
I love serving people but, more than anything, I love seeing people get great enjoyment out of something they’ve never experienced before, be it a wine or a dish.

Where do you find peace in life?
The one thing that I love the most every day is a cup of jasmine tea. It just energises and refreshes me. But just sitting down to a good meal with friends is really where I find peace.

What are your words of wisdom?
Follow your passion in work and in life. Once you find a job that you are passionate about, you’ll actually love working.