Cartel Cuisine at Noosa Cartel
John Caruso discovers how one chef’s light-bulb has led to the creation of restaurant-quality meals that are just a pot of boiling water away.
The COVID lockdown of 2020 caused a lot of people to reassess their life and discover different ways to fulfil their passions. For former Rickys River Bar & Restaurant head chef Josh Smallwood, it was the catalyst for awakening his entrepreneurial spirit while still celebrating local ingredients.
The result is Noosa Cartel, which offers restaurant-quality meals prepared and frozen fresh ready to simply heat and eat at home.
Always keen for a night off, the Carusos ordered off Josh’s Noosa Cartel menu a couple of Fridays ago. The kid had the beef bourguignon, he’s always had a well-developed palate; the wife, a green fish curry and I, the pork ramen.
The meals not only tasted great, but they presented well too, so much so that the kid had other ideas thinking he could order Noosa Cartel and then tell guests that we’d ‘slaved’ all day in the kitchen to create the delicious dishes!
He’s onto something. Preparation was as easy as placing the parcels in boiling water for about 30 minutes and then serving onto a plate. Sure, I also made some rice for wifey’s curry, but I admit I was surprised when the dishes smelt, looked and tasted like they had just come out of a restaurant kitchen.
“I always wanted a business that revolved around food, so I questioned what I could provide to consumers using my experience and skill set; and readymade meals using local produce and the techniques I’ve learned in restaurants over the years is where I landed,” Josh said. “It was a challenge to fine tune and deliver on the initial idea and to ensure the new business allowed a nice balance between work and family, which you don’t often get as a chef.
“The range of meals are frozen, there’s little waste, the flavours and freshness are locked in, there’s no preservatives or nasties in our meals and I thought this would be a good point of difference,” he said. “There was a lot of testing the ingredients. For example, leafy greens don’t work in a meal that’s going to be frozen and we wanted to make sure that the process of preparing the meal to eat was easy for the customer.
“We tested the vacuum sealed bags, making sure they were airtight when packaged at our end and then making sure that when they’re placed into boiling water all the flavours remained, and once served, the meal had to be as good as what you would get in a great restaurant.” Job done!
The man behind Noosa Cartel was born in Sydney, raised in Brisbane and at 21 moved to Melbourne to become a chef.
“My dad worked for Pizza Hut, so for a while we lived in Hong Kong and Singapore and we moved back to Brisbane when I was about fourteen,” he said. “When the idea of moving overseas came up I didn’t want to go and leave my mates in Australia. However, once we were there, I loved it. The experience, culture, food, travel, it was awesome!
“Moving to a place like Hong Kong ignited my passion for food and cooking. Yum Cha, Peking Duck and all the street food really inspired me,” explained Josh.
Without a clear career path once school was over, Josh gravitated to hospitality and working in a kitchen.
“My apprenticeship started in Brisbane, and I had a mate who was also into food and the food scene. Although when we started out, there wasn’t much of a food scene in Brisbane, so we both took a punt and moved to Melbourne,” he said. “Once we got there, we started consuming less fast food and immersed ourselves in European bakeries and Asian BBQ houses. You can’t help it when you move to Melbourne simply because of the diverse cultural community that exists.”
He worked at Mecca, Grossi Florentino, Interlude and spent six years at Gary Mehigan’s Boathouse at Moonee Ponds as sous chef and head chef before returning to Queensland.
“They were all ‘hatted’ restaurants, so I tried to extract as much as I could out of those experiences,” he said. “I was working with ingredients like blood orange and fennel that just weren’t served or utilised in dishes back in Queensland at that time.”
It was in Melbourne that Josh ‘came of age’ as a chef.
“It inspired me to be an experimental chef that constantly seeks out new flavours and ingredients,” he explained.
“My wife Danielle was from Noosa, so after our first child was born, we moved here and I landed at Rickys as the Chef de Partie and eventually became Head Chef,” he said. “I started to understand and appreciate local flavours, especially seafood. Expectations were high, so my experiences and skill set developed even further during my seven years there.”
It was during the first lockdown when Josh had four weeks off work that he realised how much it consumed him.
“Even if you’re not physically in the kitchen, as a head chef or sous chef, you’re still on the phone and answering emails, seven days a week,” he said.
“So that forced break was refreshing, both physically and mentally. The world was going through some crazy stuff, so for me to simply be ‘present’ with my family was a ‘light-globe’ moment.
“I know a lot of others in the industry were experiencing similar thoughts, questioning whether they wanted to go back to that all-consuming lifestyle.”
Thankfully for us, Josh found another way to feed off his skills – and stock our freezer! We’re now ready for those times when we want something easy but don’t want unhealthy fast-food.
Noosa Cartel is also great for single person households, particularly the elderly, time-poor professionals and, according to our kid, dinner parties where you want to impress without the stress!
Expect an invitation to Casa Caruso soon – just don’t look in the kitchen!