Paddock to Plate
Deb Caruso meets a chef who takes the paddock-to-plate concept quite literally – with help from family and friends.
It’s a steamy morning when photographer Ian Waldie and I head to the farm of XO Head Chef James Wu and his wife Phoebe.
“Just look for the terraced rows of garden beds,” James advised as there were no street numbers. He was right, it was like a scene from a drive in Italy where food adorns the landscape.
Upon arrival we are drawn to the stunning view that looks over the valley from Boreen Point to Point Cartwright taking in Lake Cootharaba, dunes of Noosa North Shore, Noosa Main Beach, Mount Coolum and, on a clear day, the white lighthouse of Point Cartwright.
“We fell in love with the view and then wanted to justify the expense of buying such a big property,” said Phoebe. “Growing our own food and expanding that to supply the restaurant is a great outcome for us and our customers.”
Phoebe and James share their home with rescue cat Lulu and Phoebe’s brother Jabin who thankfully knows a thing or two about horticulture.
“He came to visit and never left,” Phoebe said. “He is the biggest asset with 15 years’ landscape experience and an environmental science degree.”
It’s a real family affair with James’ parents still actively involved in farming in Sydney and supplying a lot of the seeds and cuttings that aren’t readily available or mainstream such as En Choy or Red Amaranth, and Kang Kong or water spinach which is famous in Asian cuisine
Phoebe and James brought the property about 3 ½ years ago from much-loved Noosa chef and restaurateur Luc Turschwell.
“It’s nice to think that a chef still lives in the house and that we are now growing food from this land,” James said. “Originally we just wanted to grow for ourselves and we planted three beds but I kept taking the food into the restaurant to share with customers so we thought we’d better set up more beds.”
“So I just keep digging whilePhoebe and James take an active role in planting and harvesting,” Jabin said. “It’s been a slow process because the grass was so high we didn’t even know what the lay of the land was.”
Thanks to locals Cameron Myers from Done + Done; and Alan Roach from ASR Vegetation Management they were able to cut through the thick vegetation.
Now there are about 80 species of edible food in trees, shrubs, vines and more – with anything up to 20 of those being harvested at any time.
“I’m not interested in monoculture,” Jabin said. “I’d rather have a lot of small amounts than a bunch of one thing. James comes out here and fills up a basket with 12-15 varieties of food. I’ve never had better two-minute noodles!
Herbs are evident in all the popular varieties: rosemary, thyme; oregano; sweet basil, thai basil; mint; you name it.
Scattered throughout are white sweet potato, Asian greens, Betel Leaf, Red Amaranth and more. James rattles off some of his favourite larger plants including Jack Fruit, Salt Bush, Lemon Myrtle, Bay Leaf, Davidson Plum, Jaboticaba; and Vanilla Bean that he is planning to use for ice cream.
There are beans of all shapes and sizes from Snake Beans to Purple Beans; and a wide variety of chillies from mild to super hot; jalapenos to long red chillies; Firecracker chilli and more.
Edible flowers such as snap dragons, pansies, marigolds are not only edible, beautiful and bright but also beneficial to attract pollinators such as bees.
Keen to share the harvest, James hands us some Tong Ho or Chrysanthemum green.
“This is something you won’t find around commonly,” he said. “It’s very strong and pungent and tastes like the smell of a Chrysanthemum flower; bitter greens like this are very good for you.”
While James suggests it’s good for a salad dressing with a nice heavy vinaigrette, I’m getting G&T vibes.
In true collaboration, Jabin suggests adding mint for mojitos and points to a hill overtaken with the most aromatic herb of all.
“That mint started off with a clump of mint root from my folk’s farm that would have been about ten years old,” James said. “Now it’s almost an entire hillside so we have enough mint now for a long time.”
For James it’s about getting the customers to understand the attention and passion they have put into getting the food on the plate.
“The flavours and freshness can’t be beaten” he says “Most of the food in XO is literally picked in the morning; washed, and on the plate that night.”
It is clear that for this trio (plus the cat), the reward lies in sharing the bounty of their labour.
I went home with fresh herbs, Chrysanthemum green to experiment in a G&T; chilli in one pocket and catnip in the other. Better not get them mixed up.