Horticulture Australia Managing Director John Webster cracks the nut on food – from his picks in fine-dining to fresh, straight off the farm fruit.
By Yasmin Newman
Since graduating, you’ve always been involved in agriculture. How has this affected your view and experience of food?
It gives you higher expectations. I was actually brought up on a farm up in New England. Being involved with food from a farm level, you get to know the effort that everybody puts into the production of it; so you expect the same level when you go to restaurants.
Where have you eaten in Sydney that meets these expectations?
My wife and I like to go down to Nicks at Cockle Bay. They have beautiful fresh fish and a good side salad and chips. Or for steak, Kingsleys. But Café Sydney is also pretty hard to beat – it’s beautiful food with a spectacular view of Sydney Harbour.
A large portion of the Horticulture Australia business comes from export agreements. When wheeling and dealing with international clients, where do you like to take them to impress?
We have one of the most spectacular harbours in the world, so I like to take them somewhere with a great view, like Banjo Pattersons up in Gladesville. But if it’s more for the food than the view, I like Est.
How often do you find yourself eating out?
That’s a hard question – my waistline tells me more often than perhaps I should! At least once a week, sometimes more.
As managing director of Horticulture Australia, you’ve seen the company grow around 70% to 84 billion dollar in annual budget. I take it you’re working some pretty hefty hours – what foods do you like to treat yourself to, to reward your efforts?
For me, it’s not so much the food as the experience. If I’m rewarding myself, it’s hopefully with my wife at a nice restaurant. And you mustn’t forget the wine that goes with it!
How about your wife, how does she like to reward herself?
For her it is chocolate. When we’re at a restaurant she starts at the dessert menu, works out what she’s going to have and then works backwards!
Working within the agricultural industry has obviously given you a holistic understanding of food. Do you take a holistic approach to eating?
Being involved in these types of organizations has given me an appreciation for nature – nature gives us such a wide array of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and meat. I firmly believe that a diet is something that contains a good balance across all of those food groups. The only thing that has changed over time is that we no longer do sufficient exercise. There should be an even balance, not these extreme diets.
You’ve held senior management positions in strategic planning, research and marketing. Do you take an equally regimented approach when cooking or is it a more relaxed affair?
I’m not a recipe type person, I like to wing it! I was lucky growing up on the farm -we had Italian share farmers and from a very early age they taught us flavour. The European influence was fantastic and I’ve always enjoyed cooking. When we have guests, it’s actually me who cooks. My wife tends to cook all the other times.
What is your favourite ingredient to cook with and why?
It sounds wrong from someone working in the fruit and veggie industry but I just love cooking roasts! Either lamb or beef and with all the vegetables with it.
Is food as important to you personally, as it is professionally?
To be honest, it’s more important professionally. I certainly enjoy food, but I’m not a foodie. I’m happy to take the lead from foodie friends, to follow their coat tails and get the benefit from it. My biggest concern is when food that has been placed in front of us hasn’t been well looked after and to me that’s not acceptable.
What are your thoughts on the organic movement?
I don’t get too involved in organic. I’m not anti in any way, but for me, knowing the quality of what’s produced commercially, I don’t have the incentive to chase organic.
Favourite place for breakfast? Home. It’s a bit sad, but my breakfast is a bowl cereal and then a cup of coffee at Bambino Trust Café.
Favourite place for lunch? Unfortunately I don’t get that much time for lunch. I usually grab something on the run, from sushi to a sandwich.
Favourite place for a lazy brunch? Now that’s more enjoyable! We like to go to Glebe and stroll along until we see somewhere we like.
And dessert? I’m more an entrée and main course man. For me, you can’t go past fresh fruit.