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When some of the first mainstream restaurants in Australia started moving into organics several years ago many of their colleagues thought they were mad and they were asked if they were “turning hippy”. These days however it’s a different story with organic food appearing on a wider range of top restaurants as attitudes towards organic leave the old mung bean, tofu and patchouli oil connotations behind.

Organic produce is being waved on restaurant menus as being synonomous with better quality and better tasting than conventional food. From organic chickens to organic yoghurt more upmarket restaurants are embracing organic produce and proudly labelling it as such. There are even many chefs who are enthusiastically growing their own, producing their own fruit and veg and buying their own properties to raise the protein. However, while the profile of organics has been boosted with moves by high profile chefs like Kylie Kwong going organic and biodynamic in both food and wine, challenges like financial pressures and concerns about inconsistency in supply still look set to hold it back from being prominent in the wider world of foodservice in the immediate future, say those in the industry.

Around the world demand for organic produce is experience strong demand—figures from the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) have market analysts forecasting annual growth rates of between 10 per cent and 30 per cent. Asia and North America are experiencing annual growth of between 20 per cent and 45 per cent.

Arecently-released survey from the market research firm RNCOS meanwhile says the Australian organic food industry is anticipated to move ahead at a cumulative annual growth rate of approximately 25 per cent between 2007 and 2011. Much of the growth is predicted to be meeting the demand from overseas for Australian organic which has established a reputation for being authentic because of the certification requirements here. By 2010 it’s predicted Australia’s organic industry will be worth around $1.2bn.

In Australia consumer appeal of organic food has fluctuated over the last ten years reaching its highest peaks in 2000. According to the latest Roy Morgan figures more than 21 per cent of people surveyed in September this year said they try to buy organic food whenever they can. This compares to figures from 2000 when almost 24 per cent said they tried to buy organic whenever they could.

Women continue to be the most interested in buying organic—with more than 22 per cent saying they buy it whenever they can. Tasmanians were the most likely to buy organic when possible followed by Victorians, West Australians, South Australians, New South Welshmen and lastly Queenslanders.

OFA chairman Andre Leu says the main hurdle for a faster take up of organic produce in Australia was a shortage of supply. While in 2006 Australia had 2567 Certified Organic Operators, there is still a shortfall. “The main hurdle is a lack of supply of sufficient quantities of organic foods. Australia needs significantly more organic farmers in the key areas where we have chronic shortages of organic products,” he says.

A passionate devotee of organic food, restaurater and chef, Rod Barbey of Melbourne’s BCoz restaurant, says other chef colleagues and friends thought he was mad when he began taking the business organic three years ago, again when he became certified organic in 2006 and then recently when he changed the name of the restaurant to include the word ‘organic’ in the restaurant’s name.

Barbey says while taking his fine dining restaurant totally organic was difficult at first because of the lack of supply of many items, and the cost of organic produce, it has improved significantly. “I decided I was against genetically engineered food and the best way to ensure you are not getting GE food is to go organic,” Barbey says. “And I didn’t want to be dealing with food that had been sprayed with chemicals or pesticides. But when I started using organic supply was quite slim, it was quite arduous.

“Our food is Asian-inspired and there were just some things that I couldn’t do. There was no fish sauce, noodles weren’t available. But in the last five years there is much more product. There are still a few things that I can’t get. Things like Kaffir Lime leaves. But now every week there are new organic products on the market. Spiral just launched a hoisin sauce. Being certified means a restaurant is still able to use five per cent non-organic food. “That means that if there is something that that you just can’t get then you can use conventional—things like gelatine, you can’t get organic gelatine,” he says.

“But now I go to the markets and I also have my own suppliers that I found—two vegetable suppliers, two meat suppliers and one seafood. And since we first launched there has been a substantial shift in attitude. Many of my friends who are chefs were surprised. They asked, “Are you turning hippy?”. A lot of people asked if we were a vegetarian restaurant.”

Barbey estimates organic produce is around 15 per cent more expensive to buy but says he believes a growing number of people are prepared to pay more to eat produce that is better quality and better for them. “It is getting better, it used to be around 20 per cent more expensive,” he says. “It will come down in price. It is coming down. Of course there are many restaurants who couldn’t afford to do this. I’m lucky. We own the building, I run my own restaurant so I’m really able to do what I want.”

Barbey says the move to organic was now reaping rewards with the past six months of the business the best ever in terms of turnover. “I am very much an advocate for being organic. We all want to know what we are putting in our mouths. But there are people also who have a challenge just to put food on the table who have a limited amount of money that last from pay check to pay check.”

There are many other chefs who are increasingly using organic food but who say they are not prepared to move to certified status.

Organic restaurant pioneer Brenda Fawdon is another chef who uses virtually all organic produce at her seven-year-old Brisbane restaurant Mondo Organics but is not prepared to take the step of becoming certified organic.

“Because you have to be 95 per cent organic and it’s not alway possible. I don’t want that pressure,” Fawdon said. “But we have been 100 per cent organic much of the time.”

Fawdon opened the stylish Mondo restaurant and attached catering and cooking school in 2000 after being inspired by a television show talking about genetic engineering. “It just resonated with me and I thought I can do something here. I sat down and made a few phone calls and got two partners on board. I knew it was going to be bigger than Ben Hur and I was going to need them. I think to attempt something like this you do have to be very passionate about food.”

Fawdon says she added more and more organic food and wine to the restaurant’s produce supply as she secured supply. “We are still forced to change the menu fairly regularly, you’ve really got to work with the seasons when you choose to go organic,” she says. “Supply was a major issue at first but it has just gotten easier and easier over the years. I have found some great suppliers —we get wild rabbit, the best oysters that we can, farmed yabby, and cheese from Diane Ray in Tasmania. It isn’t much of an issue any more. And our chefs Emma Baxter, who has worked with people like David Pugh at Restaurant II and Jeremy Strode at Langtons has really embraced it.”

Fawdon says the growing interest in organics she is seeing from customers is also part of people’s desire to know where there food is coming from. ‘They really do want to know the origins of their food, they are a lot more savvy about origins for food and wine. Diners are a lot more sophisticated—even in Brisbane. People with children are especially interested in knowing about the food they are feeding them. There are just so many kids with allergies and kids who are sick these days that makes you wonder.”

Acclaimed young Sydney chef Alex Kearns whose restaurant the Glebe Point Diner opened earlier this year and promptle received a chefs hat is another major supporter of organic produce. The produce on his menu is overwhelmingly organic or biodynamic. “I use a number of small suppliers and I use all organic meat. I find that it is just better quality, better produce, you don’t have to worry about the quality,” he says. “And they are happier animals, there is that ethical side to it as well for choosing to use organic.”

“I would of course prefer for everything to be organic but the economics of business makes that very hard. You have got to make money. But yes I think people are prepared to pay more if they know something is organic, I know I am as a consumer.”

Kearns says that while he does experience some inconsistency in supply it is not too much of a problem for him because he is able to change his menu daily. “I find it easier than others would, we’ve just got a blackboard menu I can change it whenever I want to,” Kearns says. “So when a supplier says they don’t have something then I just don’t put it on the menu.

“You can have 30 chickens one day and then then the next you could only have 15 and that is one of the things I like about it. It is very seasonal. It helps you keep in touch with the seasons, it makes you more sensitive to the earth and makes you want to not pillage it too much.

“Our pork is organic and the beef and about 20 per cent of the vegetables.

“I use smaller suppliers and stay very close to them— develop good relationships. They know what I like to order and I trust them to let me know when something is available and particularly good.”

Kearns agrees that organic food is about 15 per cent more expensive than conventional food. “I don’t think it will get any cheaper—I don’t think any food is going to get cheaper with pressures like the drought. But perhaps the gap will close.”

One of the most respected brands in the area of organic and biodynammic practices is Cullen, the name of one of Western Australia’s top wineries, and of the family dedicated to promoting organic and biodynamic wine and food that’s behind it. The biodynamic and much-awarded Cullens wines are recognised for their quality first and foremost and grace the wine lists of some of Australia’s top restaurants including Billy Kwongs, Tetsuyas, Vue de Monde, Rockpool, Must, Frasers and Ezard.

Managing director Vanya Cullen says that while Australia is behind Europe interms of the demand for organic and biodynamic where it is now seen as mainstream, it is quickly changing.

“The problem here has been availability but if Australian consumers had the choice of course they would choose to have their food chemical free,” Cullen says. “When people are having chemotherapy they are told to only have biodynamic. Why should only be sick people eating it?

“One of the problems with organics is that it hasn’t been associated with quality but now that more people are producing it and more attention is being paid to it the quality is increasing. Really these days biodynamic and organic is talked about as mainstream.”

The restaurant attached to the Cullen winery uses entirely organic and biodynamic produce, much of which is produced in its own garden. “Some times we can get 100 per cent of our produce from our own garden, and we also work with a lot of small producers. We spend a lot of time sourcing suppliers,” Cullen says.

When it comes to wine Cullen says some of the world’s best recognised wines are produced biodynamically. “People who are looking for really interesting wines are very interested in biodynamic wines,” she says. “They really are a true reflection of the vineyard and the site. We don’t add anything to the wine and it is made from soil that is healthier.”

Cullen said sommeliers would not stock wine that was not firstly top quality. “They are drinking them because they are good wines. Without quality there is no biodynamic story,” she says.

Going organic can prove to be a powerful marketing tool that can help to raise the profile of a restaurant.

In Adelaide, a certifed organic pizza restaurant business is scoring huge success with its founders’ decision to be proudly organic. But the owners of the two and soon to be three Goodlife Modern Organic Pizza restaurants didn’t initially plan to go organic. “Number one our aim was to make the best pizza possible and the organic part just evolved because the produce came up better in taste tests,” says co founder Jake Greenrod.

He says there had been a perceivable shift in attitude to organic food by consumers since the first Goodlife restaurant opened in 2003. “Attitudes have definitely changed as people have become more interested in what they eat and where it comes from. Plus there has been a lot of education from the media.”

The Goodlife strategy seems to be working—it’s been named Best Pizza Restaurant in SA every year since it launched and twice the best in Australia at the Restaurant & Catering Australia awards.

Greenrod predicts the interest in food and food quality will continue to rise fuelled by the rise in interest in the concept of food miles, and sustainable agricultural practices.

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