Novocastrians: Ben Armstrong
Novocastrians: Ben Armstrong
We think Apothecary Kitchen is an expression of what Newcastle has as a region.
Ben Armstrong was taught to cook by his grandmother and doesn't call himself a chef, but admits, "It's the only thing I know how to do!"
The professional food adventure started for Ben at the Beaumont Street location about 13 years ago, and some of his staff have been with him for many years including chef, Sam, has worked with Ben for the past nine years and is about to graduate with a degree in biomedical science.
Ben's own venture into the kitchen came through working for others. "I'd been working in restaurants for some time but not as a cook - I learned how to cook here. Personal on-the-job training."
"I very quickly fell in love with our local producers, people like Ray Marshall from Cornucopia. I came to understand what they went through on a daily basis to try to grow good food for us, how hard they worked, how little money they made - if any. So I've been on a bit of a journey trying to figure out how to give that value."
Sitting at a huge communal table in the restaurant amongst the huge jars of kombucha quietly bubbling away, it would be easy to assume that this is all about organics or biodynamics or food miles, etc, Ben is quick to out that the guiding principles for his business are ethical ones about the entire paddock to plate chain.
"I'm interested in growing and, of course, the people who do the growing, so I'm keen to see that our money goes straight to the growers as much as possible. But pursuing the labels of 'organic' or 'fair trade' aren't always the best way to achieve that. It's nice that it is, but I know plenty of farmers and growers who haven't used pesticides, etc, for 20 years but don't wish to pay for the privilege of using a label. Being connected to your growers is the best way to achieve good outcomes."
"We source produce from Chris and Erin at Village Farm in Morpeth, from Mikor organic farm at Chichester and one of their neighbour's, John. There's also a young guy in town now, Dylan, who's leasing small plots wherever he can to plant herbs and vegetables. Dylan was a chef but doesn't cook anymore - he grows herbs and sells them to us!"
Ben's priorities start with his staff. "I put them first. We train everyone to cook. Everyone who leaves here is more than capable of cooking in commercial situations as well as exceedingly well domestically, and that really flows through to the level of understanding they have when they're talking to customers about what we do."
"The produce is hugely important but doesn't come before the staff. We do make decisions to get things that aren't local, but the decision would be because it isn't available easily - spices, etc. And we're really passionate about education, about the way people look at food and how they value food."
Ben has now launched a series of cooking courses which will also form part of the education process for anyone who is interested in learning more about ethical food - how to take one chicken and turn it into three family meals, "The real Meditteranean diet includes perhaps about 200gm of red meat per month - Australian's would eat that in a single meal."
"We stopped serving meat about 12 months ago but have decided to reintroduce it to the menu. It wasn't because of any vegetarian journey, we simply couldn't see a way to put meat on a plate in a cost-effective way with the conventional way people expect meat to be served, but we could see how to do it with vegetables. You can use an ethically raised chicken, or ethically caught fish (in this case, line caught in Tasmania), it's significantly more expensive, and people still expect large portions."
I made the decision years ago that I wanted our staff well-trained in coffee, so we work with a Sydney roaster who involves our staff in education and trips to meet growers directly.
"We want this to be the truest expression of what we can do with beautiful produce. Our commitment to our local growers is incredibly important - it actually tethers us to a certain level of production and forces us to find other efficiencies before we move forward whereas you can always order an extra ten loaves of bread."
"We make a small amount of beautiful bread; we make our own ricotta - we think Apothecary Kitchen is an expression of what Newcastle has as a region. There's very little that isn't from here, and anything that isn't local is always under scrutiny."
The cooking courses will try to prove that preparing nourishing food with ethical ingredients is truly possible.
"Learning to nourish people solely through beautiful vegetables taught us to think about how meat could re-enter the menu. We'll never lose the vegies, but we'll be using meat again in a small way. So, you won't find a huge steak or a piece of bacon here."
Ben laughs at my concern that the favourite fruit of the 'nomnivore' - bacon - won't be on the menu.
"Look, if we ever do bacon it will be because we've cured it ourselves and it would be sliced very thin and very special!"
DID you know
Kombucha [kuh m-boo-chuh]: A lightly fermented drink made by adding a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) to black tea. First known to be brewed by ancient hipsters around 200BC. Ben says, "It's simply a tasty drink that we've served for the last six years. Again, it's an expression of what we can do rather than what we can buy. It's our in-house, healthy, low-sugar version of a soft drink. We don't sell soft drinks." Have it on fresh watermelon.
Visit Apothecary Kitchen - Cnr Beaumont & Tudor Streets, Hamilton.
Sources in this article:
- Photos: Shane Williams - Five Spice Creative https://www.vspice.com.au/
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