Mark Jensen

Environmentally conscious chef and author from red lantern restaurant.

With the kitchen buzzing in the background, we chat with Mark Jensen about surfing, his journey to become a Celebrity Chef and his book The Urban Cook, all about ethical eating, sustainability and food production. 

JOANNA As a chef you've have worked in a number of reputable restaurants before obviously starting up your own and then coming on board with Red Lantern. At what part of that journey did you become interested in organics and ethical produce?

MARK I've always used really great produce in the restaurants that I've worked. You find that in restaurants that if you put yourself on a certain trajectory then you'll always be exposed to farmers and great produce. But I guess that it's only recently i.e. in the last five or six years, that I started to really think about how food was produced. And more importantly I thought if I’m thinking about how food is produced and I’m actually working with this stuff every day and trying to create with it and actually trying to sell it to make a living, I thought, well, are other people thinking about it? Like general consumers? And if they are, where are they going to source their produce. And then, it begins a journey.

So I always say that it’s good to start with one thing. People get overwhelmed with organics, free range, ethical production and so on. So I say, just pick one thing. Did you buy an egg today? Okay, so do a bit of research about egg production and identify how eggs are produced. And that’s your first step. Then just take it from there.

JOANNA For your restaurant obviously, buying the quantities that you buy, do you have a lot of issues or challenges trying to find the produce that you need?

MARK Yeah we do. That’s where you have to go organic, ethical, and local. So you have to, almost got to, have a pretty broad umbrella to get the quantity of supply that you need. Because being an Asian restaurant, not everything is produced organically. I always say, that I find that most things organic would cost about 20 to 25 sometimes 30% more than conventionally produced food.

So you know at the end of the day the household is a business. I mean, you’ve got a budget, the restaurant is a business, and I’ve got a budget so you have to make concessions.

So, for me, I always favour number one, the animal welfare, the animal produce first so I’m really particular about how that’s produced and where it comes from and then I strive to get organic vegetables, fruit and vegetables and then I kind of work my way down, what’s acceptable for me and my scale of what I’ll accept to locally produced produce.

JOANNA On that topic, I was quite shocked reading in your book ‘Urban Cook’ your section on pork, about the piggery in Tasmania that is a certified Australian farm obviously keeping pigs in appalling conditions, so what are we supposed to do if we can’t trust the certifying bodies or the governing bodies that are supposedly monitoring these places?

MARK Well, that’s where it becomes that whole minefield that’s out there. For the most part those guys do a really good job and when they miss, this is really the exception and I accept that. I mean it’s about the relationship with people. You don’t have to buy your pork; I mean that pork was destined to the sideline plastic wrapped place where a majority of people do buy their produce. But you don’t have to.

So, if you really care about it then just investigate where your local markets are and maybe even drop into your favourite restaurant, or you read a review about a restaurant that’s doing something fantastic and they are sourcing free range food or whatever, then drop in and say hello to the Chef and say well, I read the article, congratulations, whatever, I’m really interested in your product, where do you get it? It’s about starting a conversation. It’s all about conversations and forming networks with people.

JOANNA On that topic, with your Farmers Markets, you encourage people to go up and talk to the Farmers about their produce. Specifically what kind of questions should they be asking and what sort of answers should they expect to hear?

MARK Well I think, how is it produced? The guy that says, oh well, I throw a few seeds around or I plant seedlings and give it a bit of water, I mean he’s probably not your guy. But if you get somebody who says that we produce it in this area, we do soil analysis, and then they start talking about the soil. For me it’s all about the soil. So if they start talking about the soil, about how they condition the soil and then they start talking more about organic ways of conditioning the soil and less about petro chemical ways of conditioning the soil then you probably know you are on the right track.

Also if they are producing more than one thing. So if this guy says well I’m actually producing, (these are just random vegetables) but broccoli, carrots, potatoes, spring peas, broad beans. If he’s producing all these different things on his farm then chances are he’s doing a pretty good job and that in itself is conditioning the soil, having different plants growing in the one area. A lot of them have mono-cultural plantings going on.

JOANNA So let’s talk fish. You mention again in your book you’ve got your popular choices of Barramundi and Tuna and what not. You’ve started to introduce some lesser-known species. What are they and why have you done that?

MARK I’ve done that just so it’s more of an education process. It’s an education process within a business context so if something doesn’t work then it doesn’t matter and you can keep going on. But it’s about getting people to realise that they don’t have to buy those popular species.

They can use latchet, they can use clams, they can use crustaceans they can use different animals. Asians are really great at using species. They are quite accustomed to dealing with bones whether they are really frying it so the bones are really crunchy to give that textural sort of feeling. It’s like most things like fresh water eels, fresh water fish, of course Australians have this idea that it’s muddy and they see trout or eel on the menu and they go ‘Wow, no, I don’t like it’. They instantly go, I don’t like it rather than giving it a go. I’ve served eel and people love it. It’s just sort of jumping, getting in through that door, over that hurdle of preconceived ideas.

JOANNA And going for the more sustainable species…

MARK Yes, the more sustainable stuff. Again it’s a question – how was this caught? So, is it line caught? There are certain netting techniques that are more sustainable than others and there are just different things. Are they trawled? At the moment we’ve got hand-dived Kangaroo Island scallops that I’m using as an extra dish I put together at the restaurant and, that’s fantastic. This guy has this licence to hand-dive 90 dozen scallops a week. He goes out, picks them up, puts them in his pack and takes them out. But then he actually collects them as well and re-seeds them.

I didn’t know this but scallops actually swim. So what scallops will do is they spawn and then swim away. So if he lives here and he wants to maintain his fish for this area then he actually has to collect them and re-seed them so when they spawn they grow again in the same spot. So again, that’s just asking the question. I asked this hand diver, re-seeding, how do you do that?

JOANNA Let’s touch on chickens. Would you mind clarifying the difference between organic chickens versus the organic raised chickens?

MARK It’s obviously a really expensive exercise. These big chicken producers, they have their hatcheries; their breeding houses the whole thing. But if you are going to be an organic farmer and raise chickens it’s really hard for you. You have to have the money or to make the investment to have your own hatcheries.

So, a lot of organic farmers buy their day old chooks from the big names in the business. And, they take them away and raise them organically. I really discovered that because I was thinking that the chickens that I was buying were beautiful organic chicken and then I made a few enquiries as to how old they were when they were at their end and they only live three weeks longer than the conventional ones.

And I said to people, what’s going on? Because there’s genetics at this end and it’s just the feed. Organic chickens take a little bit longer to reach the size because they are fed a more organic diet and they are allowed to exercise and run around. But their growing rate, if left alone would be the same because their genetics are the same. That’s like a whole loss of bio-diversity in the chickens business as well. So, it is interesting. You scratch the surface and you just want to know more.

JOANNA Exactly, if it’s got a label on it and it says organic but as you say, you scratch the surface and you start discovering. That’s why I found your book so interesting.  Because you have obviously spent a lot of time scratching the surface.

MARK That’s an interesting thing. Because it’s more about how animals are becoming extinct, exotic creatures living in far off places. But a lot of them have been domesticated animals because they have been deemed not really necessary and that’s factory kind of production. And so that’s kind of what’s happened with chickens and that’s why if you see rare breed it’s a big deal because this person has taken the time and effort to secure a breed and maintain it. It’s quite incredible that they do that. It should be respected and encouraged.

JOANNA I think moving on to your kitchen; I understand you use a water free wok? How does that work?

MARK A traditional wok stations will have lots of water flowing around the top to keep the surface cool. As you can imagine it gets pretty hot, it’s pretty intense heat. And what this does, and it’s so simple, they just push the pedestal up so the heat is further away from the stainless steel bench. So you don’t need that water to constantly cool. Those systems are not even recirculating systems. You just turn the tap on; it comes out of this end and goes down the other end. So, I mean, that was one of the first resource saving pieces of equipment that we put in place.

JOANNA So what other initiatives or resources do you use now in the kitchen?

MARK Well we use renewable energy. Making sure most things are gas powered, which is great. We have a gas powered combi steam oven that is really fantastic.

And little things like waste management are really important. We have a four-kilo compost bin at the other restaurant where the scraps will end up in tubs, which every night goes into a compost bin. And then I’ve got a little garden up there. We’ve got eight really long pots, where I’m growing things now. I’ve got that connected to a rainwater tank so that is watered through there, its compost, turning my soil and it’s kind of fun. Grape tomatoes, broccoli and zucchinis and cucumbers and bits and pieces.

And it tastes great. I’ve got a couple of kids and they love going out there and play around with it. So it’s little initiatives like that and obviously recycling. Just little things that kitchens can do, maybe you can’t compost but you can still separate and when you put your rubbish out you can still break it up into cardboard, tins, rubbish whatever. If we can keep as much out of the land fill as possible that’s great. And energy use as well is really important. People need to be aware of lights. You can get these switches where when people walk in they light up.

JOANNA So it sounds like your grandfather had a lot to do with your interest in gardening and the appreciation for the soil and everything.

MARK Yes. You know people had a really direct relationship with previous generations and that is becoming less and less. I know that my mother grew up in Beaudesert which is not far from Brisbane and then it was rural country area so we would have plenty of farmers, cattle and different vegetables and so on. Then my grandad, he worked at the butter factory and never really made a lot of money but they grew most of what they ate anyway and it’s what people used to do. They used to get by. So he had a great vegetable garden and he was always tending to that. I would say that the majority of the vegetables I ate came from that garden.

JOANNA It is good to see. I think that there certainly is a movement going back now. More and more people are getting back into just even growing what they can in their pots in their balcony. You’ve got good relationships with many providores around the place. What tips would you give to people looking for good supplies? It’s really about asking those questions isn’t it?

MARK It’s asking questions. And again, we’ve spoken about vegetables. Get their opinion about what they do for soil because that’s where it all comes from so if they treat that really respectfully and maintain that organically it’s a great thing.

And, if you work your way up the protein chain from seafood, asking questions about how it’s caught and also where it’s caught. This is where it becomes really hard because you can’t just say okay snapper is endangered it’s terrible. We are a pretty big country. Snapper might be in the low number in Northern Queensland for example but if you come down to NSW coast they could almost be a pest and prolific in numbers. So it’s where they are caught. I appreciate why this gets really hard. That’s why I say, you can’t be expected to know everything but if you ask your fishmonger and you get a good feeling and a good rapport then you have to go with him.

Then, you move on to chickens – the same sorts of things, how are they raised? You look for conventional to organic and you work your way through a few of those questions and the same could be said with beef.

I always have pasture fed beef and I’ve toured feedlots and abattoirs and to be honest no one really wants animals to suffer. It would be the exception that people want animals to suffer and I went to feedlots thinking is it going to be confronting and they certainly are, but they weren’t as terrible as I thought. Still for me I think that pasture fed beef is best but I don’t think animals should be locked in their pens for two years and fed grains for that long. But I try to keep an open mind about these things a little bit more because I went there really thinking I’m going to hate this and it’s going to be such a terrible place and then thinking oh, there are people monitoring the herd if there is any sign of weakness with them they are immediately taken away to a nursery area. I’m sure there are good and bad examples of that as well so you have to be mindful of that. 

JOANNA And finally Mark, what would be your perfect food day? If you didn’t have to worry about season or cost or location, what would you love to eat in your perfect food day?

MARK Bacon and eggs, keep it simple. Really great eggs and bacon, fantastic. Seafood is great so oysters probably or maybe pan-fried scallops and you know I love tripe so I’d probably go for a big bowl of tripe and a really beautifully organically grown mixed lettuce, salads – simple things. Simple guy.

JOANNA Nice one, thanks Mark.