Portrait

Down on the farm with chef and fresh food advocate Matthew Evans. By Maggie MacKellar.

Chef and farmer Matthew Evans

On my way to meet celebrity farmer Matthew Evans my car breaks down. Two hours into my journey south I find myself on the side of the Huon Highway waiting for a tow truck. It’s a public holiday in southern Tasmania, adding layers of difficulty. My phone is about to die as I try to arrange a tow and a place to leave the car and a friend in Hobart to pick me up off the side of the road. It’s an inauspicious start.

Fat Pig Farm, the joint restaurant and farm venture run by Evans and his wife, Sadie Chrestman, is another 20 minutes down the road. We wind our way along the Huon River. It’s been in flood most of the spring but today it’s languid. The clouds are high, the sun bright; everywhere there’s blossom and green grass. It’s arcadia but I can’t feel it because my body is still rocking with the echo of passing cars. We turn away from the river and follow a dirt road up the hill. The view builds. Then, as I’m wondering if I have enough battery left on my phone to check the directions Sadie sent me, there’s a sign on a gate: “Fat Pig Farm”. Before me is a still raw space of a new building not yet settled into its surroundings, a not finished car park. It’s shorthand for ambition, for a living, evolving dream.

Everyone knows Evans’ story, well the broad outline of it. Controversial, talented, opinionated food critic for Fairfax, Vogue, Gourmet Traveller experiences some sort of midlife crisis, wants something more, uproots and moves to Tasmania where he re-emerges as a unique cross between chef and hopeful farmer. His strength is he can talk straight to camera about what makes food taste great and how farmers grow it. His TV show is a success partly because of his accessible, slightly daggy enthusiasm for people to eat better, tastier, more ethically produced food, and partly because the produce and scenery in Tasmania is very beautiful. His cookbooks sell well. He’s real and earthy and he doesn’t pretend to know how to do it, he’s just prepared to try.

There’s no doubt Evans is best on camera when he’s unscripted. When he’s given lines to deliver his passion comes across as manufactured, wooden even; but when he’s engaged in explaining something, in breaking down a food philosophy, then the performer drops away and an attractive humanity takes over. Our chat kangaroo hops between these two – from scripted story to engaging Matthew. When he’s telling me “his story”, both of our eyes glaze over. My imagination is caught in the view through the wide windows and up into hills folding back to snow-tipped mountains. I’m not sure where he is. Maybe finalising the menu for his booked-out lunch tomorrow? Our conversation meanders. Then he says he’s had trouble sleeping because of what he wasn’t allowed to see when filming his new TV show on Australia’s love affair with meat. There’s a beat of vulnerability, a haunting, as if his imagination has played with his desire to maintain his integrity. My attention is instant as he talks about his belief that consumers, if taught what good food tastes like, can bring about change.

I ask Matthew about his childhood. He grew up in Canberra, one of four kids, British parents, a mother who loved to cook but struggled to see food beyond the binaries of “everyday” and “special occasions”. It’s a familiar story of early ’70s urban edge freedom, where the kids ran in gangs and the creek at the bottom of the suburb was a semi-rural wilderness. He talks of the secrecy of willow trees and catching yabbies. Later, when Matthew has to rush off for an appointment, Sadie takes me and my friend on a tour of the farm. We walk through thick grass down to a small creek bed. It, too, is lined with willows. Further up the creek we can hear the sound of little boys playing, one of them is Sadie and Matthew’s son. The connection makes me smile.

The three of us wander through the vegie garden and we all soften in the spring sunshine. The keen wind tastes of the end of winter. The garden, now under the care of the efficient and practical Jonno Cooper, is laid out in neat rows. We chat beside the broad beans and garlic. In the paddock behind the garden a Wessex saddleback sow wallows gloriously in a mud puddle, her litter of piglets pestering her for a drink. It’s a dream made into reality but we don’t talk meat or even food. We talk about children and sacrifices. Behind us the piglets – destined for the restaurant and Matthew’s famous pork products – squeal and chase each other through the grass. I ask Sadie if handing the vegie garden over to a full-time gardener has been a relief. “Yes and no,” she says. She loves it out here, but to support this lifestyle she’s now almost full-time in front of the computer, managing bookings, marketing, taking calls, arranging interviews, no longer standing at the end of a hoed row of carrots or onions. “Is it worth it?” I ask. She pauses and says, “Yes.” When it all comes together and she sees a roomful of people transformed by the experience of eating food grown and cooked on the farm, sees them interact with each other and respond to Matthew, “then it’s worth it”.

Back in the restaurant Sadie makes tea in an earthenware pot and I think it’s about the most refreshing drink I’ve had in years. Matthew talks to me about the pressure of making this new TV show, how it’s been uncomfortable and distressing but ultimately his hope is it will cause people to think about where their food comes from. He talks about capitalism and the burden it places on animals and the people who process those animals. How such production demeans us all. I point out industrial consumption under communism has a similar effect. We’re both silenced for a moment by the thought of all the hungry people. “We can do better,” he says. And I agree.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 29, 2016 as "A slice of Evans". Subscribe here.

Maggie MacKellar
lives on a sheep property on the east coast of Tasmania. She is the author of two memoirs, How to Get There and When It Rains.