First she reared the trout. Then she became fond of the trout. Now she’s about to scoop the trout out of its tank and whack it on the head with a rolling pin. “I know where the brain is, just between the eyes,” says chef Jo Barrett. “It’s a matter of holding the fish still and doing it. But as soon as you feel a muscle move in your hand, it’s a full-on experience. I can’t help but think of my dog. To me, it’s not any different. Death happens in agriculture and farming but it does feel different when it’s at your house. I definitely feel nervous.”
Barrett is at Future Food System, her experimental home in Melbourne’s Federation Square. The house incorporates its own ecosystem, growing its own food, including pumpkin, buckwheat, crickets and mushrooms, as well as trout and barramundi. It generates its own power using 36 battery-charging solar panels on the roof, fence and walls, and produces no waste, largely because growing food obviates much of the need to bring packaging into the building but also because organic waste becomes fertiliser.
The instigator of the closed-loop project is environmental activist Joost Bakker and his collaborators are Barrett and her partner, fellow chef Matt Stone. The 87-square-metre three-storey house was built during a stop-start 2020 – Barrett helped construct, sand, plumb, paint and plant, as well as whipping up memorable lunches for tradies – and it’s going to stay on this prominent site until midway through 2022, when it will be moved to the country as a home for Bakker’s mother.
Stone and Barrett still have a rental in suburban Northcote, but Federation Square is home base for now. Bakker doesn’t stay over but is there every day, tinkering and toiling.
When not in lockdown, the trio hosts tour groups and, three times a week, feeds 14 people at a time for $400 multi-course meals cooked with food grown on site. They need that money to fund the project: there’s no big benefactor floating it.
The boxy, black house is tucked between the public square and the river, somehow both prominent and private. When I eat there one night in autumn, crowds stream out of the MCG while we enjoy apple and tiger-nut cake. The footy fans could have peered in at our increasingly rollicking dinner, but no-one did: it’s scarves on, eyes down.
The house makes the menu. There are laying hens on a terrace, so eggs are in, but there’s no room for a cow, so dairy is off the table. Vegetables sprout from rooftop barrels, but there’s no wheat for traditional flour. Bees busily make honey, but there’s no sugar cane for sprinkled sweetness. The toilet plops into a digester which fuels a compost system and generates gas to fire a grill. The circumscribed ingredient list spurs creativity.
“Ever since I was little and we had vegetable gardens, my belief system around cooking has been the same,” says Barrett. “What you eat should be driven by produce. That’s what I thought cooking was: you cook that thing when it is there.”
At 32, Barrett is one of Australia’s best credentialled chefs and arguably one of our most undersung food talents. She’s slim and taut, dressed in jeans, T-shirt and boots, her dark blonde hair unfussily tied in elastic high up and out of the way. You get the sense she could just as easily fillet a fish, wrap herself into a complicated yoga position or explain how algae relates to geology. Chefs can be edgy; Barrett is not easily flustered. She has trained as both chef and patissier, in something of a culinary double degree, winning scholarships along the way.
With Matt Stone, 34, she earned a coveted Good Food Guide hat at Oakridge winery restaurant in the Yarra Valley in 2016 and retained it until they left in 2020. The pair, who have been together since 2014, also cultivated a large produce garden and revolutionised what “event dining” can mean: there was no beef-and-salmon alternate-drop at an Oakridge wedding.
Instead the kitchen practised whole-animal butchery, using an animal from one end to the other. One guest might receive pork loin, the next roasted pork belly, their tablemate glazed pork neck. “It clicked with me that you can’t order sirloin all the time, because there is the whole rest of the animal,” says Barrett. “You shouldn’t rely on someone else to deal with it.”
Barrett is also a cheesemaker: ask her anything about cheddar. She is a baker, proficient in milling her own grain. She represented Australia in the “dessert Olympics” in Milan in 2019, taking the team to an unprecedented seventh in the world with an improbable sugar sculpture of an emu. She self-publishes the Have A Go series of cook-booklets with photography collaborator Jana Longhurst and has just created an artisan dough-scraper with knife maker Mathieu Dechamps, “because bakers should have nice things, too”. Oh, and she whittles wood. And is skilling up in fly-fishing. You’d call her a dilettante if she wasn’t so good at everything she turned her attention to.
“She is hungry for information, like a little kid always asking questions … She will go to any length to research something and then work really hard to make it happen.”
“She never stops surprising me,” says Joost Bakker, who opened his first zero-waste restaurant, Silo, in a Melbourne laneway in 2012.
“She is hungry for information, like a little kid always asking questions. It doesn’t matter what field, not just food; it could be a building material or how a rug is dyed. It blows my mind. But even more unusual is her determination to execute to the best of her ability. She’s a perfectionist. She will go to any length to research something and then work really hard to make it happen.”
Bakker is equally impressed by how Barrett deals with failure. “There’s no ego. She’s not scared to try stuff,” he says. “Mistakes are where you learn and build resilience. We had a period where our aquaponics went wrong, the system was out of balance, and fish died. Jo was heartbroken, but she shared the f…-up on social media and learnt from it. She is the hero in every situation.”
“The food system is at the root of so many of our problems. Environmental issues, disease, nutrition – we all eat and we don’t always realise the impact that we have, both for good and for bad.”
Barrett believes the food world needs to change. A lot. Starting now. And if this house doesn’t do its job, if this radical showcase of sustainable living, cooking and feeding people doesn’t spark some major shifts, she might leave the industry altogether.
“The food system is at the root of so many of our problems,” she says. “Environmental issues, disease, nutrition – we all eat and we don’t always realise the impact that we have, both for good and for bad.” The house presents solutions. “People want to make a change, they’re up for it – but they just don’t know how. When people come here, they get it. Sustainability is not just recycling. It’s having the courage to really change.”
There were two distinct chapters in Jo Barrett’s childhood. The first was in Templestowe, in Melbourne’s hilly outer east. The Barretts lived on a rambling half-hectare at the end of a cul-de-sac, unfenced from the neighbours. Barrett and her two older brothers, Aidan and Michael, were free to roam. “It was a beautiful block with an ordinary house,” says her mother Kerry, who worked as a physical education teacher. “Jo practically lived outdoors, keeping up with the other two.” There was a dog, guinea pigs, a tortoise, foxes and owls in big oak trees.
One neighbour had a swimming pool; another, a pharmacist, brewed beer and would light bonfires. “Joanna would hang out and have a ginger beer with him,” says her father John, who worked as a PE teacher but is also a musician who plays 30 instruments. He played didgeridoo on the Crocodile Dundee soundtrack, toured with Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis and performed on TV shows including The Steve Vizard Show and Young Talent Time.
“They had a good life there,” he says of his kids’ upbringing at the Templestowe home. “I’d go down to collect the mail and hear, ‘Hello, Dad!’ Joanna would be two-thirds of the way up a pine tree holding on for dear life, or sitting on the roof of the house next door.” In autumn, her brothers would use her as a test pilot, pushing her on a go-cart into piles of leaves. “All you could hear was giggling,” says John. “Joanna was fearless.”
The tenor of that childhood changed dramatically after Kerry and John separated when Barrett was eight. Michael, six years older, took the break-up hard. “He started smoking heaps of dope, then got into heavier drugs and started to get really sick,” she says. He fell into a 10-year-long ice addiction, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and is now living in a secure mental health unit. “There have been so many dramas,” says Kerry. “We all love him but it’s been very demanding and dangerous.”
Michael moved between his parents’ homes and was also homeless for long periods. “He wasn’t around very much but he was sometimes living at home and it was horrible to see his pain and struggle,” says Jo Barrett. “I have blocked that period out a bit.”
The situation with Michael made her “stronger and more tolerant”, she says. “I consider people’s circumstances, what happens at home, their mental health, especially in the kitchen. You have to treat people right.” It made her determined to tackle institutional food.
“The food he eats is awful. I’ll visit him and it might be salty, saucy stroganoff, over-steamed packet vegetables, cake and jelly. You’re not helping people who are on so much medication. Their gut biomes are ruined. I’d love to change it.”
A joy in cooking was threaded through Barrett’s childhood, even the hard parts. “I remember cutting lemons in a sandpit, mixing lemon juice and sand and stuffing it back into the lemons,” she says. On a ramble aged three or four, she ended up in a neighbour’s kitchen: “While Judy cooked, she taught me how to clean a knife and let me cut things up.”
Kerry’s parents lived in seaside Merimbula, on the NSW south coast. “Grandma had worked in pubs and clubs and Grandad did a lot of fishing,” says Barrett. “We’d go up there and fish and I remember epic picnics on the beach and amazing barbecues.” There were skills and experience on her father’s side, too.
“Nana was really good at pastry and cakes, and exotic with her cooking for her time, trying lots of Asian food, and mincing all their meat with a hand-cranked mincer.” At home, there were always vegetable gardens. Barrett was always clear about her career path. “At primary school, when you wrote down what you want to be, I wrote ‘chef’. In high school, I made trips with my friends to the market, then we’d go home and cook.
I watched Wednesday night ABC and SBS, because that was the cooking night.” She wasn’t an instant whiz. “I remember making crunchy risottos and a pho with no seasoning,” she says. “Mum would never eat anything that I made.”
Not that Kerry was unsupportive. “Jo would go to food festivals when she was 12 or 13,” she says. “For Christmas around that age, we gave her a chef’s table [cooking experience with nose-to-tail advocate Adrian Richardson] at La Luna restaurant.” The butchery expert showed the class – a group in their 60s, plus one wide-eyed teen – how to break down a fish, and cook pork chops. “She had a great time,” says Kerry. “She has a lot of curiosity.”
Barrett wanted to leave school at 15 to do a chef’s apprenticeship. “We battled with that for a bit,” says Kerry. “She thought she was non-academic. She played club basketball, the sofcrosse [modified lacrosse] teacher said she could play at state level, she’d never had a diving lesson and next thing she was on the diving team. She would have a crack at anything.”
Barrett stuck it out at school, studying hospitality from year 10, so she was a year ahead on her chef training. But there was a surprise. “She got her year 12 results and started to cry her eyes out,” says Kerry. “She’d done really well. She said, ‘I could have gone to university.’ I said, ‘I thought you wanted to be a chef.’ She said, ‘I do.’ I always thought she was bright but she hadn’t seen herself in that light.”
Barrett started her apprenticeship in 2007 at De Lacy, a family-owned institution in Melbourne’s cobbled Niagara Lane. She was off and running. “I feel like I was just made to be in hospitality,” she says. “I enjoy the technical skills involved. I enjoy the fact that there’s a method to it all. I don’t mind rules: that there are certain things you do and others you don’t and that you find creativity within that. I like that feeling of working hard.” At De Lacy, everything was made in-house, the modern Australian menu changed frequently and the kitchen was clean, neat and organised. “That all resonated, too.”
As well as working, Barrett was studying at Box Hill TAFE. The college had a scholarship program, but cooking students never thought to apply. “I decided to write an application,” she says. Barrett secured a study trip to Canada, to the swish Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary. “I thought to be a good chef, you have to do international travel,” she says. “The other part was that my brother was really sick and I wanted to get away. But I felt really guilty leaving everyone.”
“I don’t mind rules: that there are certain things you do and others you don’t and that you find creativity within that.”
Being so far from home was a shock for the 19-year-old: “I left Melbourne on New Year’s Eve 2007 and it was 32 degrees. I arrived in Calgary and it was minus 20. I had no sense of what it meant to travel so far. I got there and had a panic attack.” But she quickly found her feet, moving into a basement room of a family home where the father taught her Chinese cookery. At the college, “The people were deadly serious about cooking,” she says. “We wore big chef hats and aprons, we did ice-carving and lard-sculpting, I was exposed to new food like frog legs and I learnt about sous vide [water bath] cooking and charcuterie. It was awesome.”
She wrapped up her coursework, won another scholarship to stay a bit longer, and started work at The Tribune, a French restaurant, also in Calgary, which incorporated classic flourishes like a duck press, which squeezes every last drop of flavour from a poultry carcass, and chateaubriand, a large beef fillet carved tableside with solemn ceremony.
She also met Antonio, a musician from Brazil, who wove in and out of her life over the next few years. Back in Melbourne, work became as much about saving money for trips to South America to see him as career progression. Barrett became a sous chef at a Mont Albert cafe, where she realised that breakfast service was just as challenging as fine dining. “It was early mornings, eggs and pancakes, getting absolutely flogged,” she says.
“Breakfast is a whole other world. I hated it but it taught me about cooking quickly.”
In 2011, Barrett targeted MoVida, the hottest exponent of Melbourne’s head-over-heels romance with tapas. “I sent my résumé off and never heard anything, so I went and asked if I could work there for free,” she says. “I started doing two double shifts a week. It was really hard and hot in a tiny, sweaty kitchen.” MoVida ended up employing her. “I had qualified as a chef but there were so many things I still hadn’t cooked – octopus, quail – and I felt like a fraud. I learnt a lot.”
Because Antonio had trouble getting an Australian visa, the couple lived together for nine months in New Zealand, where Barrett again jumped in over her head to run a cafe, this time with a bakery counter. “I fudged my way through it, looking at recipes in books. It gave me the idea to go back and study patisserie,” she says. When Antonio’s visa came through, they moved to Melbourne and married. Around the same time, Barrett took a job at MoVida’s new South Yarra bakery, run by renowned baker Michael James.
There was little time for sleep. “Bakery hours are waking up at two in the morning, working to at least three in the afternoon,” she says. “You go home, eat, go to bed. I was a zombie.” It wasn’t great for the marriage. “I was just doing what I loved all the time. He didn’t quite grasp the concept, plus he’d immigrated to a new country with no family or friends. I just couldn’t balance it and we had a heap of trouble, so we ended up splitting.”
Bakery life was tough but rich. “I always thought bread was really romantic and I feel that if you’re going to be a good head chef, you need to know every section of the kitchen.” She also gained a new perspective on the notoriously tough kitchen culture. “That’s when I realised that kitchens can be kind,” she says. “All chefs have had that feeling of being scared at work, that we’re going to get yelled at. One day, I forgot to put sourdough in the bread and Michael didn’t yell at me. We didn’t find out what I’d done until the next day when we needed to bake the bread and it was flat like a pancake. I remember feeling really overwhelmed.”
Breadmaking is brain but also brawn. “I enjoyed the hard work but I underestimated the physicality,” she says. “You’re putting 25-kilogram bags of flour in a mixer and an equal amount of water that we’d pour from buckets. You’re also pulling that dough out of the mixer, folding it, moving it into the fridge and onto a table, lifting heavy boards with dough on them. I got really strong and lost heaps of weight.” Brother Aidan recalls the period: “She would do monstrous hours, but still do a yoga class or dance class or catch up with friends at night,” he says. “She’s always doing something. And if she does sit still, she’ll fall asleep.”
“She is constantly busy,” agrees Matt Stone. “It’s rare you’ll see Jo relax and watch TV. She’ll do yoga, go for a run, take the dog out. She’ll sit in bed next to me tying lines for fly-fishing. Last night, she was whittling spoons out of timber. There’s always another project.”
They’re a powerful and complementary duo. “Matt is a natural creator, more impulsive,” says Joost Bakker, who has worked with Stone on and off for 12 years. “Jo thinks stuff through, she wants to know more, she’ll write things down. That’s what makes them such a killer combination.”
Barrett had encountered Stone in foodie circles long before she got to really know him in 2012, after splitting from Antonio and moving into a share house where Stone was living. At the time, he was working at a previous Joost Bakker project, Greenhouse, further along the river at Queensbridge; it was the first restaurant in the world to harvest urine from customers, carting it offsite to fertilise a crop of mustard greens. “I did a couple of days’ work experience there,” says Barrett. Something clicked. “Everyone looked happy, working really hard at something they believed in.” Stone and Barrett became partners and collaborators, working with Indigenous ingredients, aiming at no-waste kitchens and unpicking dining orthodoxies which are a strain on the planet.
In 2015, they were offered the gig at Oakridge – a prominent winery restaurant that aimed to elevate its food offering – and they worked there for five years, bedding in ideas and practices around growing-your-own and waste reduction that have been taken even further at Future Food System. The owner of the winery and restaurant was Tony D’Aloisio, one-time chairman of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. “We took Jo on because of her potential and we saw her develop tremendously over the period,” he says.
Barrett credits D’Aloisio with upskilling her in business. “We had meetings where I’d be looking at a spreadsheet and think they were talking gibberish, but by the end I could understand it,” she says. “We became more responsible and grew up around running a business. We learnt the balance between cool ideas and actually executing them in a way that works financially.”
Oakridge also supported Barrett in extra-curricular endeavours, like the dessert Olympics in 2019. “Now that I’m not using sugar at all, it is weird to think that I made a two-metre tall edible emu from sugar and took it to Milan,” she says with a laugh.
Her coach was Luigi Stivaletta, head teacher at the Australian Patisserie Academy in Sydney. “She’s calm, involved, explanatory, a leader,” he says of Barrett. But her creation was radical. “She represented Australia with that emu, and it was a most challenging piece of engineering.” Sugar sculptures are generally built on a large supporting base. Barrett’s bird stood on skinny legs. “Most centrepieces will have a rod or dowel to support the structure,” says Stivaletta. “She had perhaps 10 kilograms of weight on a leg about 5 centimetres in diameter. Not only that, but there was character and charisma in the shape. She wanted to push it.”
That world and the Future Food System world aren’t entirely aligned. “The amount of sugar, the packaging, it’s a wasteful thing to do,” says Barrett. “But I loved throwing my whole energy into it. I learnt so much, met incredible people and got to travel. And I love dressing up in a big, tall hat and white uniform and following the traditions of cooking. It is a whole different side.”
What is so bad about the current food system anyway? “It goes back to a disconnect with farming and the environment,” says Barrett. “I remember in Canada, it was snowing and they brought in a pallet of lettuce for us to wash. I wondered, ‘Where did this come from?’ It was a real moment. The whole dynamic of ordering from a supplier over and over and over – snapper, say – and getting the same thing every time, well, you keep doing that. But if you actually realised how hard it is for fish to grow, that it takes three years to get to that size, maybe you’d think about it differently.”
Buying from local farmers is almost a cliché now, but Barrett thinks there’s still further to go. “You’re not necessarily supporting them just because you’re paying them,” she says. “It needs to switch around to food producers determining what we cook with. That farmer needs to say what they can produce, and when, and your job as a cook is to be flexible about how to use it.
“I don’t think people fully understand the stress on farmers to produce all the time. And when there is that stress to deliver a product to a restaurant in a certain quantity in a particular week, that’s when they might think they need to spray the crop or risk their topsoil to fulfil that order.” Chefs can be the conduit between happier farmers and more engaged diners. “We should be pushing ourselves to try different dishes that are still really delicious and crowd-pleasing but might come from a more ethical place.”
“That farmer needs to say what they can produce, and when, and your job as a cook is to be flexible about how to use it.”
She believes the post-pandemic world will offer a real opportunity to reframe Australia’s dining culture. “Once people grasp what our food system could be, it can benefit every arena,” she says. “It’s good for food tourism because the food you get in one place is different from another. It is better for the environment. It’s more healthy and balanced. We’re already such a respected culinary culture, we can definitely come together and lead the way.”
Where does Barrett see herself in all this? “I love cooking and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. But I feel so passionate about the environment that I’d rather give up cooking, start my own little farm and just grow my own produce than stay in an industry that is either too stubborn to change or doesn’t have the courage to change.”
Meantime, there’s a trout to deal with. “I’m so proud that we grew it from a fingerling, the size of my finger, to as big as my forearm in eight months,” says Barrett, lying face down over the aquaponics tank, looking into the water. “It has beautiful spots and rainbow patterns and a perfect face.”
“We’re already such a respected culinary culture, we can definitely come together and lead the way.”
The trout isn’t easy to catch. It takes an hour and a half of net-swishing to scoop it out, then seconds to kill it with one whack from a rolling pin. “I feel a bit sad,” says Barrett. “We grew it to eat but I don’t find killing something easy, not ever.” She hot-smokes the fish and eats it with buckwheat blini, preserved horseradish, pickled green almonds, boiled egg and herbs.
Everything is from the house. “It’s food metres, not food miles,” she says. “I really believe in living like this, eating like this. I feel it in my conscience that this is the right thing to do.” And the trout, in the end, is delicious. “I enjoyed it. It’s a good feeling – it has purpose and meaning.”
The best of Good Weekend delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning. Sign up here.