Wild women of food: The suppliers, teachers, chefs, growers and brewers breaking the mould

Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo was an early foodie.
Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo was an early foodie. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Australia has a long history of women as a driving force in the food scene. Think Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer, Christine Manfield and Gay Bilson.

Despite that legacy, the relative scarcity of female leadership in restaurants continues to be an issue. And while the "where are all the women chefs?" question is a valid one, we've found a wealth of female knowledge and influence throughout the food world. In fact, some of the most inspiring stories are of women who don't play by the old rules, forging unconventional paths for themselves, both in the professional kitchen and beyond.

There's the 25-year-old chef helping to define new Tasmanian cooking; the cheesemaker in South Australia who is pioneering truly Australian-style cheeses; the teacher in Sydney who is training a new generation of Indigenous hospitality workers, and teaching Rene Redzepi about native ingredients on the side. There are brewers and farmers and farmer/restaurateurs who represent the future of Australian food and drink.

It would be wonderful to see more women in leadership roles in restaurants – it's a future we will continue to hope (and push) for. But it's worth taking a wider view. Food is so much more than just restaurants. It is restaurants and farms and breweries and schools; it is as wide and wild as human experience. Here are seven Australian women leading the way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Ali Currey-Voumard - GOOD FOOD Cover PHOTO by Luke Burgess

'Driven by the power of deliciousness': Ali Currey-Voumard. Photo: Luke Burgess

Ali Currey-Voumard

Executive chef, Agrarian Kitchen, New Norfolk, Tasmania

At 25 years old, Ali Currey-Voumard might seem quite young to be running the kitchen at the Good Food Guide's Regional Restaurant of the Year, but the chef already has a decade of experience under her apron strings. "I was quite a lazy child," Currey-Voumard quips. "Eventually mum got fed up and told me, 'you've really got to start doing some s--- around the house'." She was given the option of cooking dinner two nights a week or doing two weekly loads of laundry. "And since I loathe laundry – I still hate laundry – I chose to cook dinner."

Food and cooking had never been an important or pleasurable part of her home life, but once Currey-Voumard began her twice-weekly dinners, there was an immediate connection. "Pretty quickly, it was all I really cared about," she says, adding that "instead of smoking cones" with her classmates, she was scouring the markets of Hobart for the best ingredients. She got her first kitchen job at 15.

Through a mutual friend, Currey-Voumard was introduced to Rodney Dunn, who was already running the Agrarian Kitchen farm and cooking school. Recognising the young cook's talent and potential, Dunn gifted her a spot in one of the whole hog workshops held at the school. Currey-Voumard spent her weekends during the following year working at the Agrarian Kitchen.

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At 16, Currey-Voumard moved to Melbourne and spent years working in various roles for Andrew McConnell. She and her partner were planning a move to Canada when they visited Tasmania in March of 2016, and Dunn took them on a tour of the new Agrarian Kitchen Eatery and Store in New Norfolk. "We were walking through, and it was so amazing. Rodney kept saying, 'so, do you know a chef who'd be right for this?' When we got back in the car, my partner looked at me and said, 'we're not going to Canada'."

Since the Agrarian Kitchen opened in October of last year, the restaurant has quickly become a beacon for the burgeoning food scene in Tasmania. Currey-Voumard's dedication to seasonality and skilled simplicity has won her a legion of fans. Currey-Voumard is excited about the potential of her home state to become, as she puts it, "an island of food lovers". When asked about her personal ethos and cooking style, she comes up with what could be a new slogan for that food-loving island. She is, she says, "driven by the power of deliciousness".

Analiese Gregory

Chef at Franklin, Hobart

Raise your hands if you've ever strangled a sack filled with over 100 pigeons. No? That would just be Analiese Gregory, then. The new head chef of Franklin is nothing if not up for a challenge. Her do-it-yourself motto may have roots in Auckland where she was born and raised, but Gregory has travelled the world learning, cooking and killing.

In France, she learned under Michel Bras where she would forage every day for the ingredients for that night's dinner. She worked in the dungeon kitchen at Brett Graham's The Ledbury. She spent time in the Research and Development Kitchen of Mugaritz. She was an owner and head chef of Darlinghurst bar and restaurant Bar Brose.

And now, sick of the city and sick of not having direct content with the produce she loves the most, she's moved to Tasmania where she's Boss of the Grill. Her menu at Franklin (she took over from chef David Moyle who moved back to Melbourne late last year) is reflective of her experience cooking through some of the best restaurants in Europe, driven by what's on hand, fuelled by fire.

Living 40 minutes out of Hobart, Gregory regularly forages for mushrooms and dives for abalone. It's living here that's encouraged her to overcome her fear of the sea, diving for abalone in the dark, cold waters of the Tasman (pictured). She's become such a fan of the activity she even keeps a wetsuit on the backseat of her car at all times.

You won't beat her in an arm wrestle, and you certainly won't beat her in a gunfight. She can shoot a wallaby in the head with a point 17 calibre rifle at 500 meters. Consider yourself warned.

MYFFY RIGBY

Kris Lloyd

Woodside Cheese Wrights, South Australia

Kris Lloyd never intended to make cheese. In fact, she never intended to work in the family business at all, having a satisfying career in marketing and corporate development. But eventually, around the time that she was having children, she came to work at the family winery.

The winery, Coriole in McLaren Vale, produced olive oil and vinegars along with wines, and Lloyd thought it would be a nice addition to the cellar door experience to add a seating area and sell antipasto platters. When Woodside, a neighbouring cheesemaking operation, came up for sale in 1994, she thought it was fitting that they produce their own cheese as well.

Woodside was a tiny operation, and one day there was simply no one else on hand to make the cheese, so Lloyd did it herself. "I was not really prepared for how I'd feel about that," she says. "I fell in love. One minute I had milk, and the next day I had cheese." This simple act of craft and chemistry began Lloyd on a journey to become a pioneer in Australian cheesemaking.

At the time, Lloyd admits, Woodside was making "really crappy cheese". But there was very little institutional knowledge in Australia and the few experts tended to keep their secrets to themselves. Eventually Lloyd founded a cheese association and organised cheesemaking workshops for South Australian producers. But that created its own issues. "We all learned from the same person," Lloyd said. "We all were using the same recipes. I realised that I didn't want to be a good cheesemaker, I wanted to be an extraordinary cheesemaker. I wanted to do things differently." So she began experimenting with her own cheeses. And she also travelled to Europe, learning everything she could from more experienced producers.

Lloyd's passion for doing things differently has resulted in a wholly original style of cheesemaking, one that has put her in the role of trailblazer. When she started adding fresh edible flowers to her cheeses, people thought she'd "gone mad", she says, and more than once she's had to work hard with regulators to get them to understand what she was trying to accomplish.

These days, Lloyd is obsessed with native ingredients, and how the use of them gives her cheeses a distinctly Australian personality. At the World Cheese Awards, a chevre covered in native green ants came in 11th place out of 3021 entries. When thinking about what to enter, Lloyd says she went with something unique rather than something expected. "We could enter a brie or camembert, but why would we do that? The French have been making those cheeses for thousands of years. I wanted to show something new in cheese."

Palisa Anderson

Boon Cafe and Boon Luck Farm, Byron Bay

When asked about her role in the Chat Thai world (six Sydney restaurants and counting), Palisa Anderson laughs. "I'm an all-rounder," she says. "Whatever needs doing, that's what I do." The second-generation restaurateur says that on any given day she might be found in the back office doing paperwork, filling in on the wok station at one of the family's restaurants, on the floor tending to customers, or picking vegetables at the farm she founded near Byron Bay.

The 107-acre Boon Luck Farm, planted in 2013, came about because the family was not able to source enough quality produce for its restaurants, particularly the specialty ingredients needed for Thai cooking. It began with a search for red holy basil, needed for Padt Grapao, the herbaceous stir fry that appears on many Chat Thai menus. "We bought a farm because we couldn't find a grower who could supply the amounts we needed," Anderson says. "How naive we were in thinking it would be as simple as that!"

The purchase of the farm led Anderson on a quest to understand our food production system, which in turn led her to "want to grow all my food myself". Now the organic farm supples most of the produce for the family's restaurants, as well as growing specialty ingredients for other chefs, including Peter Gilmore.

Anderson didn't always embrace her family's business. "There was a period when I really didn't want to do this," she says. For 10 years, she lived overseas, spending time in New York, London and Tokyo. "But even then, I'd be on the phone with my mother planning menus."

These days, she embraces her role as all-rounder for this group of very busy restaurants, and as an organic farmer extraordinaire.

Danielle Allen and Jayne Lewis from Two Birds Brewing.

'I wanted to do my own thing': Jayne Lewis (right) with Danielle Allen. Photo: Salona Chithiray

Jayne Lewis and Danielle Allen

Two Birds Brewing, Spotswood, Victoria

Like many great things in this world, Two Birds Brewing was brought about thanks to female friendship. Jayne Lewis was a brewer, and Danielle Allen was a marketing whiz. And together they've built Australia's first female-owned brewery.

Lewis started out in winemaking, but an early realisation that she was better suited for brewing began her on the path to business ownership. Her first job in beer was with Little Creatures in Geelong. Eventually she moved to Melbourne and took a job with Mountain Goat. "I loved it, it was a great job," Lewis says. "But eventually I wanted to be more involved, I wanted to do my own thing."

So she contacted her friend Danielle Allen, who had worked on the business side at Woolworths and other large companies. In 2011, they founded Two Birds. "I made beer and she did everything else," Lewis says.

The duo started out with one beer, a golden ale, and debuted their sunset ale six months later. Seven years later, they have four beers that are always on shelves, plus a number of seasonal brews, and up to six more available on tap. Their distinctive labels can be seen in bottle shops all over the country.

Lewis credits some of their success to that distinctive style. "You have to look good on the shelf, and I think that's something people weren't paying much attention to when we started out," she says. "Our packaging tells a story. And we make beers that we like to drink."

GOOD FOOD. Beryl Van Oploo, Aboriginal elder and teacher who is helping train indigenous girls in the hospitality industry. Beryl holds some native Blueberry Ash (Elaeocarpus reticulatus) berries.

Aunty Beryl holds native blueberry ash berries. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo

National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, Sydney

Beryl Van-Oploo is not slowing down. Well into her 70s and after more than 50 years in the hospitality industry, she has a full workload teaching cooking and hospitality skills to young Indigenous students at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence. She is involved in a catering business, run by her partner. And she's about to open a cafe in Redfern. "I haven't decided on the name yet," she says.

Van-Oploo, who is affectionately known as Aunty Beryl, was sent by her tribal elders to Sydney when she was 16 years old. Her family taught her how to cook, and she says she has "always been a foodie", even decades before that word came into common usage. "The elders sent me here to get an education and find work, and that's just what I did," Van-Oploo says. In the years since she's had a wide-ranging career, operating numerous restaurants and cafes. Her focus has always been on bush tucker.

In 2006 she began her current teaching job. The Centre for Indigenous Excellence, in partnership with TAFE, runs nine-week courses that teach the basics of hospitality, and helps students secure internships and jobs in the restaurant industry.

When Rene Redzepi came to Australia to plan for Noma's Australian residency, he sought Van-Oploo out for her knowledge of native ingredients. The two have stayed in contact, and Redzepi invited Van-Oploo to Noma's reopening this month in Copenhagen.

But Aunty Beryl doesn't have time for European travel right now; she's got too much else on. "I'll get there one day," she says. There's no rush.

News. Preview for Truffle Festival. Kate Marshall with Sal the truffle dog hunting for truffle in a plantation of Hazelwood and English Oak at Terra Preta Truffles near Braidwood. 9 June 2014. Canberra Times photo by Jeffrey Chan.

Kate Marshall: 'It's a very special relationship'. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Kate Marshall

Terra Preta Truffles, Braidwood, NSW

Terra Preta Truffles are known by chefs around the world as some of the highest-quality black truffles available on the international market. But Kate Marshall, who founded the company with her husband Peter, is most interested in benefits that have nothing to do with luxury eating. If you listen very carefully, it sounds as though she's mainly in it for the dogs.

"It's a very special relationship," she says, of her truffle-sniffing canines.

The Marshalls started out in forestry, and began farming truffles in 2002. "We threw out most of the advice we were given," Kate says. Instead, they studied historic truffle production, and set about to "replicate what a French forest was like at the turn of the century," when those forests were at the height of their production.

Their truffles won the gold medal at the Australian Food Awards in 2016 and 2017. Marshall is especially proud of this achievement given the farm's small size. "We were up against much larger farms," she says, meaning that they would have had a much wider range of specimens to choose from when entering. "There is still a place in this industry for the family farm."

Marshall sees Australia's burgeoning truffle industry as a great opportunity for us to show our culinary riches to the world. "It gives Australia an incredible opportunity, but it's also a great responsibility. We have a blank slate, and there's an opportunity to get it right."

The national Good Food Guide 2018, in partnership with Citi and Vittoria, is available from newsagencies, bookstores and via thestore.com.au/goodfood, RRP $29.99.