They call him a "Waste Warrior".
Geraldine Johns is a very special part of our Auckland Ozone community. One of our closest neighbours and friends, Geraldine and her son Jett watched as our Westmoreland space was transformed from a literal demolition site into the Scrapyard development our Auckland crew now call home. Jett was our first ever customer, getting himself a flat white the morning our doors officially opened (and before heading off to school). And Geraldine herself has brought light, energy and colour into our eatery whenever she visits for a bite, or a coffee and catch-up with our team. Geraldine is an award winning journalist and writer, and we are very humbled to have her contribute to our 2020 Journal.
It was a salute to sustainability in every possible sense. Ozone Grey Lynn’s first Sustinere event showcased the very best in local product, with every attempt made to divert as much usable kai from the bin as they could.
Only one thing was from overseas, the Exec Chef - and he came in by satellite. Joe O’Connell, who is also Ozone’s Sustainability Coordinator, was starting service in Ozone London when the inaugural Auckland autumn dinner was held. Joe helped curate the menu in tandem with New Zealand Head Chef, Chino Salazar. We feasted magnificently while sharing in the wisdom of local suppliers talking about the celebration of sustainability and ethical practices.
When all the dining was done, Joe chatted by Zoom from his London home. It is, he says, his dream to have a menu that fully features only New Zealand products. “As Kiwi as possible - we’re getting there.” They are indeed. Consider some of the menu mentions: smoked oyster mushroom with Hawera quinoa (grower Hamish Dunlop was one of the guest speakers).
Joe himself is locally raised: Born in Taranaki (Urenui), his family lived on land purchased from the dairy farm next door. “Mum and Dad always had a great garden; we didn’t grow up with any hyper-processed food,” he says.
Joe’s kitchen career conversion came early; while still at school he got a job cooking at the New Plymouth RSA and at Waiau Estate Winery in Onaero, Taranaki. Once he’d finished school, he completed his chef’s training at the Wellington Institute of Technology (WelTec). He and his classmates were taught how to be responsible with food waste, but the emphasis was on the classical French mindset, where not too much thought is given to minimisation of waste, he says. Joe has worked in high-end addresses both locally and abroad: Boulcott Street Bistro and Arbitrageur in Wellington; a high-end chalet in France. Between gigs he’s worked on East Coast sheep and kiwifruit farms. And wherever he’s worked, he’s always had a strong attachment to sustainability.
It was when he joined Ozone that he was able to put that into practice. “I thought there had to be a way to be more financially and environmentally viable, and here we were more focused on keeping money out of the bin,” says Joe. He calls it the triple bottom line: “People, planet and profit.” That means a turnaround in the way their meals are produced. “For us it’s almost like looking at it in reverse,” he says. “What is our by-product going to be?” One of the tricks that has fast become legend at Ozone Grey Lynn was inspired after a barista suggested Joe address the issue of massive amounts of surplus milk going down the drain on a daily basis. The result? Joe’s own ricotta - which has become a staple ever since (it goes down a treat on the dinner menu, where it’s whipped and served on sourdough bruschetta with warm tomatoes, pickled beetroot and olive).
It’s been trial and error along the way, with a few well-established wins. “Silky smooth whey and pumpkin gut purees for omelettes, fish sauce and lacto-fermented garlic stalks all became part of our pantry, along with a multitude of random products scattered throughout the fridges and kitchen.” Or you might like to try another find that illustrates the same philosophy of being an eatery with a conscience: The fermented hummus with raw veges and flat bread. The techniques used in preparation are in no way revolutionary, Joe says - but the shift to sustainability perhaps marks a regression to a palate of old. It sounds very labour-intensive, and indeed it is. But Joe believes they can still carry their practices a lot further than they already do - something particularly challenging, given New Zealand’s remote location.
They call him a “waste warrior”. He concedes it is a bit of a battle, “purely because it is so easy to throw so much stuff in the bin. But there’s no going back - not for me.”