A country girl, Zoe Birch grew up picking homegrown vegetables, bottling preserves and baking bread with her family. It’s no surprise that she has found her niche at Greasy Zoe’s, the tiny, handcrafted restaurant in Hurstbridge she created with her partner and fellow chef, Lachlan Gardner. Zoe has worked at some of Melbourne’s top restaurants, including Middle Brighton Baths and The Courthouse, in North Melbourne. But the desire to run a restaurant as sustainably as possible, with a strong focus on local produce, saw Zoe and Lachlan move to Hurstbridge and open Greasy Zoe’s.
For Zoe, it has been a dream come true. Together, she and Lachlan do everything, from making their own soft cheeses, preserves and dehydrations, to harvesting produce at a local farm and even washing the dishes at the night's end.
“Greasy Zoe’s is a special place, and we actually do what we say, which I love and am very proud of,” Zoe says.
“We are only a two-person team, seating only 32 customers a week to focus on our restaurant’s environmental footprint.”
It’s hard for Zoe to pin down her first food memory. There are just too many. “Eating corn fresh from the stalk - so, so sweet,” she says. “The smell of tomato sauce cooking on the stove during the peak of summer and making bread with my mum.” Growing up in country Victoria, Zoe says her family rarely shopped at the supermarket. “We made everything,” she says. “We also grew all our vegetables. It gave me a real appreciation for food and how long it takes to grow.”
Zoe’s first encounter with the Yarra Valley came when she was in her early twenties, foraging mushrooms on the side of the road. It’s the little things she appreciates most about the Yarra Valley: “Popping into Saint Ronan’s Cider for a takeaway long neck of their cider, then grabbing a beer at Hargreaves Hill in Yarra Glen and a pie on the way home,” she says. “Simple but brilliant.”
This is an easy one for Zoe. “It’s a complete change of produce,” she says. “All the interesting fruits start: figs, pomegranates, apples, pears, feijoas and the vegetables spell comfort food. Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac and parsnips are just some of my favourites. Summer produce is easy. Autumn is slightly more challenging, which I love.”
Zoe is a firm believer that food is about sharing. “The way we do things in my house is many different dishes all designed to share,” she says. “Lots of colours, choices, and fresh is always enticing for young kids.” Zoe says she would start her feast with homemade flatbread, which is always a favourite. “Then we’d go from there,” she says. “Perhaps a slow-cooked lamb shoulder, a salad using what’s in the garden, sautéed greens, yogurt dip, loads of fresh herbs and halloumi or feta (we love cheese in our house).”
When they started Greasy Zoe’s, Zoe and Lachlan set out to create a sustainable business with an intense focus on local, seasonal food. And that’s exactly what they’ve done. Zoe is passionate about supporting small producers in the community and only using produce that is either organic, biodynamic or sustainable. “Changing the menu every week, we grow some of the produce we serve and use only hyper-local ingredients,” she says.
“We don’t use any large suppliers.”