04 Sep Meet Paper Daisy Head Chef, Jason Barratt
It’s been almost six months since Jason Barrett took over as executive chef of Paper Daisy and it’s obvious by the smile on his face and the energy in his voice that he’s still deep in the honeymoon phase of the new job.
Perhaps because it’s a reminder of a recent stay he had at Halcyon House before taking the helm in the kitchen. “Yeah, I got given a room here by a friend as a gift,” says Barrett. “And when I stayed I did a full digital detox, put the phone in the safe, and it was the best time. I never left the property, because I didn’t want to leave the little paradise they’ve created here. Super strange how things happen, because I was working here a year and a half later.”
Having experienced Halcyon House as a guest, Barrett had a unique perspective when the opportunity came to think about food, the various spaces around the hotel, and how the two elements could harmonise with one another.
“When I stayed, it was really fun eating out by the pool and having snacks at the bar,” he says. “That was when I started to understand Paper Daisy is so much more than just a regular restaurant, where you do lunch, dinner and maybe breakfast. You’ve got all these other areas to cater for. There’s room service, people outside, guests wanting stuff take away. It’s a lot to consider, but I love it.”
Having worked his way up in Melbourne, from a small French cafe to the three-hatted Attica, each of the dishes Jason has created for Paper Daisy are designed around more traditional flavours, combined with contemporary cooking methods and presentation. Like the overall vibe at Halcyon House, it’s food that feels special and luxurious but also familiar and comforting.
“I felt a little nervous coming in,” he admits. “Not because there were big shoes to fill, but because I wanted to take things in a different direction. I love [former executive chef] Ben Devlin’s food, but his strong point is pairing really unique flavours and ingredients, that aren’t traditionally paired together. I wanted to make the food more accessible.”
Sitting on the balcony, having just finished another busy lunch service, Jason’s taking a break in his apron and t-shirt. Not a jacket or scarf to be seen, this is the Northern Rivers version of winter, and it’s one of the main reasons Barrett made the move north – not only because it’d mean more beach time, but more access to ingredients.
“I’ve seen a full cycle of local produce now,” he says. “I’ve seen what’s around and I know what’s coming up. We have a really good relationship with the best farmers and suppliers. I call them up for a chat and they’re really knowledgeable and interested in what we’re doing. The concept of farm to plate doesn’t really exist in the city, where you’re mostly ordering stuff from a rep in an office, but it does here. Like last week, this fisherman called me at eight o’clock in the morning and said I’ve just pulled my boat in and I’ve got this, this and this and so he ended up walking in the kitchen door and we paid him directly. I couldn’t believe it. Having that real contact is amazing.”
It’s easy to imagine the title of executive chef going to some old industry stalwart with a big belly and even bigger ego, trading on their reputation, while a team of young guns do all the work out the back. Not Barrett. At just 35 years-old (and looking closer to 25) it’s his first time in the role, so not only is he still striving for excellence, but in the age of rock star chefs, he appears to come at the work with a refreshing dollop of humility.
“I honestly want to lead by example,” he says. “I’m not even on the roster, because I’m just always in the kitchen. I love encouraging staff and showing them things, because that’s the only way to make a place run the way you want.
“I’m also not afraid to give people want they want. Like recently, a guest asked for some Vegemite with their bread and I was like, ‘No worries!’ If you’re staying here and you want Vegemite, of course. I’m not here to build my super fine dining resume. I’m here to make this place even more enjoyable and make food I’d enjoy eating.”