Serving up more than just a menu

ON THE PLATE: Claire Van Vuuren and Mitch Grady, co-head chefs of Popla Bellingen
ON THE PLATE: Claire Van Vuuren and Mitch Grady, co-head chefs of Popla Bellingen

FOR many locals, there's probably little romance to the abundance of fresh food available in town, and even less glamour around how it arrives to shop shelves.

But with the arrival of spring, a network of the region's growers, suppliers and restaurateurs are determined to highlight just how much of a world-class foodie nirvana exists on the Coffs Coast as well as help shorten the supply chain from farm to plate.

Latest figures from Coffs Harbour City Council show visitors to the region bring with them quite an appetite.

In a survey by Tourism Australia Research, eating out at a restaurant or a cafe was the top activity for overnight visitors to the Coffs Coast for three out of four age brackets: 30-44, 45-59, and 60+, well ahead of going to the beach, sightseeing, visiting theme parks or museums.

One business raising awareness of the local food basket is Popla Bellingen restaurant, which opened at 2 Oak St in June.

Run by the chef team which owns Bloodwood Newtown in Sydney, and which has more than five Gourmet Traveller awards, Popla won over the discerning Bellingen community, thanks largely to its ethos of forging close relationships with local small growers and suppliers.

Co-head chef Claire van Vuuren, who sits on the board of Women In Hospitality and is a regular speaker at national industry events, believes it is essential to do the richness of the Coffs Coast food bowl justice on the menu.

"A restaurant is essentially a middle man for linking the talent of growers and suppliers to the dining public,” Claire said.

"It's almost a duty of Popla to become a showcaser of the local food, because otherwise we wouldn't be doing the area justice - and also to keep food producers here alive and kicking and continuing to flourish.”

Starting September, Popla Bellingen will launch fortnightly "meet the producer” dinners with a set menu featuring the wares of a local supplier plus a Q&A session with diners.

The first of these will be Troy Blackman of Waterfall Produce followed by The Promised Land beef stud, and Susan Weil from greens growers Funny Farm.

Claire said Bloodwood has held similar nights with great success.

"They're always educational and a lot of fun. We tend to end up quite boozy and chatty and lots of regulars end up becoming friends,” she said.

"Of course Coffs is known for its bananas but there are also its dairies and great milk, that's an amazing product that goes all the way around the country. There's also lots of world-class pork, Dorrigo potatoes which go into Smith's chips, and of course seafood.”

Popla's co-head chef Mitch Grady agrees.

"It's great for people to get to know the great ingredients these producers make,” he said.

"Usually the person behind it is really passionate, they love to talk about it. Customers come away with something memorable.”

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