TedxSydney dishes the dirt on 'crowd farming'

Catering for a crowd is a challenging enough endeavour, but imagine if the chefs had no idea what produce they'd be working with until a few days prior. Not to mention being mostly in the dark about the source, quality and quantity.

That was the situation at the TedXSydney conference on Saturday where a new partnership with urban farming initiative Grow It Local led to its first “crowd farmed” event. 

ARIA's catering team created all the meals from produce largely supplied by conference attendees and Grow It Local members a day or two before the event began.

“It's probably the cruelest thing you can do to a chef,” said Jess Miller on stage at the conference.

Miller, co-founder of online urban farming platform Grow It Local, coordinated ingredients harvested from Sydney backyards, windowsills and balconies used in the event's crowd-farmed menu.

About 2200 guests attended a series of talks set to inspire, ranging from longevity genetics to the Australian identity and digital memory loss, punctuated with rotating food stations using produce donated by the public.

“People are so proud when they bring in what they've grown,” Miller later added, noting one donor's efforts to mark carefully wrapped contributions with unique QR codes. When scanned, these lead to a digital account of each item complete with a photo of the plant from which her basil, coriander, chillies, endives and limes grew. “It was like Christmas. It was really sweet.”

Morning tea kicked off with Brasserie Bread loaves baked on-site using flour milled that day and rounds of Pepe Saya butter churned just hours before, placed on lengthy buffets amid ample fruits.

Lunchtime featured charcuterie stands adorned with smallgoods alongside a bountiful table of roasted meats including free-range pork from the Hawkesbury's Melanda Park, with beetroot and quinoa and heirloom tomato salads.

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The treats continued into the afternoon with pyramids of nougat made with honey sourced from the Southern Highlands and northern Sydney, scones, fresh berries and The Urban Beehive honey from The Royal Botanic Gardens.

Pickles and preserves added a homely touch, including rhubarb jam in the tea break plus sweet onion relish served during lunch – both created last week at Kitchen By Mike's Jammin' & Jamming event with the help of guests – as well as piccalilli made in-house.

“When you're getting little bits and pieces – a bag of carrots, a few beetroots – it's great to pickle them to serve alongside something,” said ARIA Catering's Matt Moran.

Even the smallest of ingredients played its part. “I opened up a bag that had six cherry tomatoes in there!” Moran said. “There's a lot of love in every ingredient. It's very special, and great to see people feel they're contributing.”

ARIA Catering group chef Simon Sandall added that herbs were high on the donations count, making their way into meat braises and sausage mixes, and estimated that 65 per cent of food served, including meats, was crowd-farmed.

What Miller says started as a “pub idea” grew into a focus for the event with the direction of TEDxSydney food curator Jill Dupleix.

Dupleix, herself supplying a “pathetic” 10 homegrown spring onions, reflected on creating one's own food: “You want to share it, you want to give it to somebody. It really engages you. When you grow, you grow.”

Beyond the meals themselves, Meet the Maker workshops aimed to develop guests' food knowledge and introduce producers – cue Tim Casey, head butcher at sustainable meat supplier Feather & Bone, who carved up a body of Gundooee Organics wagyu beef to highlight the value of lesser-used, secondary meat cuts.

A GaiaRecycle unit was also on hand to convert organic waste into a powerful fertiliser, destined for food rescue charity OzHarvest along with any leftovers to create a closed-loop event.

The home of “ideas worth spreading” was just the place to advance creative sustainability concepts. “I have a great belief in the power of a good idea,” said Dupleix. “All these people are already doing this – growing, sharing, swapping - but it takes an event like TEDxSydney to pull it all together.”