Caraway croissant with smoked trout, caviar and cultured cream. Potato with chocolate, coffee and orange. Rhubarb and native quandong cheesecake. These – and others like them – are the dishes Jo Barrett is known for, so it comes as a surprise to learn that the Oakridge chef once hated pastry.

“I did everything I could to avoid it,” she says. “I loved cooking where you could just throw a bit of this and a bit of that in, and pastry was so technical. Things had to be weighed properly, and I just didn’t understand it.”

Eventually, not being able to bake became too frustrating for Barrett. But serendipitously, she was cheffing at MoVida at the same time the MoVida Bakery opened in South Yarra. She put her hand up to go across and work in the kitchens at the bakery.

“I’d never made bread before – I don’t think I even knew what sourdough was,” she says.

She worked her way up the ranks, becoming second in charge under Michael James (James eventually bought the bakery, renaming it Tivoli Road). Then, after a stint with Shaun Quade designing dessert menus for a number of restaurants, she left to plan her own bakery with her partner and fellow chef Matt Stone. They wanted something small that would allow them to mill grain and bake bread and pastries for wholesale so they could save to open their own restaurant. But after repeated delays with the proposed site, they both accepted jobs at Oakridge in the Yarra Valley.

This August will mark four years at the winery restaurant for Barrett and Stone, and although they’ve both become known for their honest, local, garden-to-plate cooking style it’s here that Barrett’s reputation for desserts and pastry has really flourished. Her caraway croissant has attracted visitors to Oakridge since day one, and was listed as one of the top 50 dishes that defined Australia in Gourmet Traveller in 2016. Her low waste ethos is demonstrated in many of her dishes, including her potato desserts, made from rescued potato skins that would otherwise be destined for the compost bin, and the gin orange parfait made from spent gin oranges from nearby Four Pillars distillery. Any leftover sourdough bread she’s baked gets turned into crackers for the next day’s service, and any by-product gets used in the creation of something else.

She’s also a deft hand with Indigenous ingredients, topping lemon tarts with green ants, using mountain pepper berry in ice cream, combining Davidson plum with macadamia in a Swiss roll, and many other uses. All the produce used at Oakridge is either grown onsite or elsewhere in the Valley, however they’ll make exceptions for produce they’ve foraged for themselves, even if that’s saltbush from the coastline.

About two years ago, cheesemaker Colin Wood implemented a cheese program at Oakridge after a surprise allocation of milk from local biodynamic micro-dairy Little Yarra Dairy. When he left the restaurant in mid-2017, Barrett took over and has been making cheese – everything from brie and washed rinds to blue and feta – ever since. ”

“The milk is also turned into crème fraiche and butter – all the dairy on the menu is now made in-house.”

“It’s something we’re really proud of,” she says. “The goal was always to make whatever we’re serving ourselves.”

Barrett grew up in a family where food and cooking and growing your own vegetables was really important (her grandmother was a chef, too), but even with this formative upbringing, running the restaurant and working the garden at Oakridge has taught her even more.

“I realise now how seasonal food is – not just what grows when, but you might have some bad weather and it wipes out a whole crop. Or it doesn’t rain so the cows don’t have any grass and you don’t get enough milk to make cheese.

“The first year we had the garden, we had a massive crop of tomatoes and we didn’t know what to do with them – we were giving them away in the restaurant. And then the next year, we prepared for that again and had recipes and menus done, and then we didn’t get any tomatoes at all.”

It’s fortunate that Barrett got over her dislike of baking, because she’s become so good at it that she’s representing Australia at the World Trophy of Pastry, Gelato and Chocolate competition in Milan in October 2019. Along with her teammates – Adele Di Bella from Sydney and Bujinlkham Chuluunbaatar from the Gold Coast – Barrett will use the competition to showcase uniquely Australian ingredients (think bunya nuts, finger limes and blood limes) to an international audience.

“I only ever learnt pastry so I could become a better head chef and learn all the sections,” she says. “I never thought it would lead to this.”

OAKRIDGE WINERY, Yarra Valley

864 Maroondah Hwy, Coldstream VIC 3770