Anna Wong - Country chef and producer

Friday, August 24, 2012

Anna Wong and Jerry Mouzakis have been farming olives and Chinese red dates in the NSW central west for almost 20 years. They also run one of regional Australia’s most awarded restaurants and so rely on farming not only for their own income but also to supply their restaurant with fresh produce.

Having grown up in her parents' Chinese restaurant and Sydney’s market gardens, Anna was perhaps  destined to make her livelihood through growing and cooking her own produce. And Jerry, with his Greek heritage and childhood spent in and around his family’s Sydney seafood shop, always had a natural curiosity about how, when and where things grow best.

In 1994 the couple were both working and leading busy lives in Sydney. Jerry was teaching and Anna, who had trained as an industrial chemist and then retrained to be an accountant was putting in long office hours. They started to dream of moving out west and having themselves a tree-change.

Jerry was particularly keen to move somewhere with a similar climate to that of Leftkas, the Greek Island where his family grows both olives and Chinese red dates. He planned to do the same here in Australia and eventually found a block of land just out of Cowra, NSW.

And while it was climatically perfect, their land was somewhat lacking basics such as infrastructure and improvements. It was quite simply one big paddock. So with a baby in tow and limited farming experience they set to work planting over 3000 trees, including 1500 olive trees, an orchard of Chinese red dates, quinces and blood oranges. They also regenerated a pocket of the farm into a wildlife sanctuary.

In the early days, Anna says, “we kept our jobs in Sydney and just visited the farm on weekends. Our son Ari was a newborn and we’d arrive exhausted most Friday nights with a car full of baby gear and then wake on Saturday to knee-high grass and a mountain of work. It just wasn’t manageable.”

In giving up their steady ‘white-collar’ jobs for the world of farming, Anna and Jerry knew they’d be taking a financial hit but, as Jerry says, “we were making a very conscious lifestyle choice’. The first few years were full of challenges and soon enough they realised they wouldn’t be able to get by on income from the small farm alone.

“When we first moved,” Anna says, “there was a roadside stall near our house. It belonged to a local Japanese family and they sold the most beautiful, aromatic white peaches. Jerry and I would often say; somebody should put produce like that on a plate so one day we decided we would."

In the year 2000 Anna and Jerry bought a small building at the bottom of Cowra’s main street and opened Neila, the restaurant that was to earn them accolades from food media around Australia and become a destination for anyone interested in food.

Since opening 14 years ago, Anna and Jerry have worked the restaurant every single night of service. If they can’t be there, they don’t open. Ever. And it's this level of dedication that has delivered them such a dedicated following. In addition to the restaurant, Anna also teaches cooking workshops at the farm, does catering and also works throughout the summer to preserve the fruit from their orchard and surrounding growers. Jerry can generally be found in the olive grove, on a tractor or elsewhere on their productive little property.

Their dates and olives did of course find a permanent place on the Neila menu, as did those white peaches and other local produce. But, as Jerry says, “while we are lucky enough to be surrounded by beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables, nearly all of our smaller ‘protein’ producers have disappeared over the past ten years. From rabbits to ducks and trout, they've all gone. Maybe it’s economies of scale or distance to Sydney markets. Whatever the reason it’s very sad.”

Anna points out that it’s not just small farmers finding times tough, the region’s wineries have also suffered plenty of knockbacks. The road to Anna and Jerry’s farm passes an enormous vineyard in the process of being pulled out with mounds of ripped-up vines burning like beacons across the ridge.

But in spite of the comings and goings surrounding Anna and Jerry, their own farm and restaurant survives and moves forward. Why? “Maybe because we really love what we are doing so we are prepared to make sacrifices and work around the clock to keep it all ticking along,” says Jerry. Anna suggests it’s because their approach to farming life and the restaurant is essentially very simple and down to earth; “we use basic ingredients, avoid trends, serve what we love to eat and enjoy the genuine support of our local community.”


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