By JrmMarch 28,2017
As the sun is rising over the Sydney Market out in Homebush West, early on a Friday morning, we arrive in the middle of the market rush. We have to manoeuvre ourselves through hectic forklift traffic to get to our destination stand, to meet with the people behind Export Fresh.
What we thought would be an interesting success story from founder Tony Mann, soon turned out to be so much more. Little did we know that Export Fresh is so much more than just a supplier and producer of colourful leaves bursting with fragrance and flavour. They are also slowly but steadily creating a community and support network for our top chefs here in Sydney.
Tony and his team, most of whom come from prestige kitchens (working in Michelin star, hatted and world-renowned restaurants), are well aware of the high pressure and demands that are thrown at chefs on a daily basis. This is one of the reasons Tony left the kitchen scene.
Back in 1999, he found himself exhausted after a Sunday lunch service which had gone wrong and resulted in him being infuriated, angry and “seeing red.” This became a breaking point where after service Tony told himself, “This isn’t worth it, I’m out.”
At this stage, Tony had, for the last couple of years, felt the Australian produce scene was lacking innovation. He began searching for a fresh new alternative. He came across a grower in Victoria that was producing a really good salad mix, and that is when Tony started his business. Using his friends and contacts here in Sydney he would work all day out of a van, carefully organising, packaging and delivering straight to restaurants around Sydney. Tony would introduce new varieties of leaves to the market, and when his grower in Victoria couldn’t keep up with the demand, he first brought on another grower, and then, two years later, Tony started his own farm. Around this time, his long time friend and ex Sous Chef Paul Bottell jumped on board, and together they built up the Petit Bouche Farm on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. The farm was formerly owned by one of their competitors June Henman, and once Tony and Paul got their hands on the land, they brought June back in to be their consultant. “She knew the farm and the soil and what would grow and when, so she has been a great help.”
Micro Herbs were relatively new on the scene at the time Tony left the kitchen. When he started his business, he sourced micro herbs from their partner brand, Pocket Herbs. But with his new farm, he had a chance to add to the Pocket Herbs selection and experiment with different kinds of seedlings and herbs. Today, Export Fresh work with seven different farms around the country to cater for the different seasons and Tony and Paul have recently purchased a 7 ½ acre farm on the Gold Coast which is, at the time of our meeting, home to 120,000 plants. This is where it becomes mind-blowing.
Two-thirds of the micro herbs and baby plants/vegetables that Export Fresh are growing at their Gold Coast Farm will only give them one cut; the rest will have to be replanted. So every 10-14 days at least 80,000 plants are replanted!
Imagine yourself sitting down in a Sydney restaurant eating a beautiful meal, surprised by a sudden burst of flavour. You find yourself desperately looking around the plate to find the source of this essence, only to finally narrow it down to a delicate, innocent leaf. There is no way you can even begin to appreciate the journey that this leaf has made, the time and devotion that goes beyond the grower, handler, supplier, chef and waiter that has made this very dish appear in front of you. This leaf has had a short but meaningful life, where from seedling to flourishes would be only a matter of weeks.
Now imagine a hydroponic farm on the Gold Coast where there are 120,000 plants being carefully hand picked, or individually cut with stainless steel scissors, gently packaged, in biodegradable boxes made from corn and labelled with spinach ink, and finally shipped to Sydney. How can you put a price on that?
What Tony, Paul and Operational Manager Quinton do, is not just providing a unique product, but they are also paying back to the industry. Two years ago they brought on chef and artist Jamie Henshall to help them connect with chefs using their products. Together, with the whole Export Fresh team, they are spreading a mindfulness, not only over the otherwise macho and very busy Sydney market but into our Sydney kitchens. In their monthly blog ‘Chef of the month’ created by Jamie, they highlight their customers and let them show what they can do with the Export Fresh produce. As an incentive, they have sent some chefs to “man camp”, a retreat for men, where they learn how to relax, breath and take a pause in their otherwise hectic day. They are also initiating chef dinners, where chefs can get together with their peers and sit down and enjoy a meal that is highlighted by different local producers, a great way to support local farmers and put them in front of the very best in our industry.
What Export Fresh is doing is giving highly pressured chefs a space to pause and reflect on the fantastic job that they are doing. And for a wholesaler to show such appreciation for the people that are respectfully showcasing their produce, well it’s beautiful.