In search of the best produce there is to offer

Written by Grant Jones

Photography by Alana Dimou

The way Tony Panetta looks at produce, you’d think he’d grown it himself. A potato planted to order, raised from the ground and prepared to suit the tastes of ICC Sydney patrons; heirloom tomatoes, bright red or striped in deep greens, presented in the best possible way on a plate, matched with a handmade goat’s curd, just a couple of hours’ drive away. Spooned onto the dish by the ICC Executive Chef during a lunch at this Sydney icon, you’d think he had milked the goats and crafted the soft, fresh, tangy local treat himself.

The world comes to Sydney to experience, see, feel and taste what this country has to offer and, with its food, ICC Sydney puts Australia on a plate in dishes that are far and above the “conventional”. We gather over a three-course lunch—Tony Panetta, Director of Culinary Lynell Peck, Beverage Operations and Cellar Manager William Wilson, Pierre Issa from Pepe Saya Butter, NSW Wine Industry Association President and Swinging Bridge winemaker Tom Ward and myself—to discover the story behind the philosophy—more than a venue. 

“I think it gives us an edge, it adds to the personal approach we apply to everything we do and providing that high-end restaurant experience,” says Tony of his hyperlocal approach to the produce he sources from local Sydney and regional New South Wales suppliers.

“We’ve got a reputation now for delivering great culinary experiences, which for our team is in large part due to our connections.”

Local Hero food

In a venue that can cater for just a handful at a time or create a sit-down dinner for several thousand, there is still a restaurant feel in every dish.

With genuine care and attention, Panetta and the culinary crew at ICC Sydney—under the leadership of Director of Culinary Lynell Peck—tap into global trends, create menus and source local produce to fill the menu compendium that feeds the millions who have attended functions and events held at the harbourside venue since it was relaunched less than three years ago.

For Tony, it could be a call from a Blue Mountains farmer asking if he has any use for a few hundred kilograms of apples, ready to pick, or a potato grower harvesting a crop of heirloom spuds because they look good and taste different on a plate. Or controlling the acidity of the buttermilk supplied by buttermaker Pepe Saya.

“We take a very hands-on approach to our suppliers,” says the chef. Not only can growers

and suppliers call Tony directly, the chef and his team are also welcome at farm gates around New South Wales where he receives a significant percentage of his produce. “We’ve got a reputation now for delivering great culinary experiences, which for our team is in large part due to our connections.”

“We’ve been operating for more than two years and have been talking to clients for longer. People have experienced our passion and our dedication to producers and farmers and the relationships that we have formed and how that translates to what is served on their plates.” For suppliers and growers that means comfort in the knowledge they have a buyer for their artisanal produce, can invest in their business and create more crops or hand-crafted produce for Tony and his team to try.

“We have also been able to contribute towards growing their businesses,” Tony says proudly.

Local Hero : Alana Dimou
Local Hero : Alana Dimou men drinking wine

For Garry Kadwell of Kadwell Potatoes that means investing back into his Crookwell farm and producing a wild potato from Peru, first cultivated in the Andes by the Incas 8000 years ago. Being wild, it has taken Garry four years to “tame” the yellow-skinned spud which presents a beautiful golden buttery flesh when cooked. That potato helped Garry take out NSW Grand Champion for Innovation in Landcare Management in 2017 for his focus on producing highly viable potatoes while adopting innovative sustainable methods and technology. That includes a minimum four-year rotation with sheep and cattle grazing on lucerne or cereal crops, grown in red basalt and brown loam, which provides the potatoes with their flavour.

“For us it is not just about producing a marketable crop but returning life to the soil… and creating a rich biodiverse growing environment that returns higher crop yields and nutritional value to our potatoes… not to mention great flavour and taste!”

For Jenny Daniher and Cathy Owen, of Garlicious Grown, it means a constant supply line of their sublime yet savoury black garlic, which turns up on ICC Sydney dishes such as Cowra lamb, chickpea, black garlic, shallots, lemon and river mint.

Based in Braidwood NSW, the friends came across black garlic and set out to meet a challenge to grow it. They were then introduced to Tony Panetta.

“He’s enormously supportive of our products and fantastic to deal with and despite the size of the organisation, which can be daunting at times, he has a certain understanding of the fact that we are not metropolitan-based and that you are not sitting in Sydney and can’t deliver in two hours’ time,” says Jenny.

“The kind of expectation of how you are going to do business also looks after producers, and it might sound shallow but they are terrific payers… for a small production business that’s fantastic. We want to grow a successful business but really, at the heart, what you want is your hard work and terrific energy presented well on a plate,” says Cathy.

Jenny and I have been out on the farm planting garlic all day and we are tired and dirty. So you don’t want to feel that you are just another supply item. There is some recognition of the love and care that goes into making a quality product, and trying to ensure and that it arrives in good condition.

On the bottom of the menu you may see a little picture of Jenny and I and a little blurb about who we are, that is truly touching. There is nothing trivial about that,” continued Cathy. “We’d be thrilled for any restaurant to mention our name, but to have our story told by ICC Sydney is massive,” adds Jenny.

Local Hero : Alana Dimou man drinking wine
Local Hero : Alana Dimou waiter serving wine

Chef Marty Boetz left the restaurant kitchens of Sydney several years ago to build a supply line where local farmers could provide fruit, vegetables and other fresh produce to restaurants around town.

“It’s a little bit of extra work to be more vocal and to communicate with the farmer or someone who is close to the farmer,” Marty says.

“A lot of chefs preach seasonality but in fact they are not really connected to the people who are growing it, but that’s what Tony is actually doing. Tony has been very supportive of the Hawkesbury and has come up with his team to have a look at the farm. Anything that comes from us is usually picked the day before. It guarantees that freshness for him.”

That includes orders big and small. “He gives me plenty of notice if he has really large events. Not long ago he needed 3000 zucchini flowers but I had two weeks’ notice, so the grower knew and he started picking them on Tuesday for a Friday delivery,” Marty says.

The first thing most function diners see is a large individual dinner roll on a side plate, but not at ICC Sydney. They are more likely to see three beautiful little rolls of long-fermented Berkelo sourdough, sliced and served next to Pepe Saya butter and Alto Olive Oil.

Local Hero : Alana Dimou man spreading butter in bread

For Tony, the agility of Berkelo owner Tom Eadie is just the point of difference an ICC side plate needs. “I thought as a small artisan, we may not be able to fit into what they need,” Tom says. “But we did and we came up with a few products that they liked. I was impressed with how they can work with small suppliers like us yet can maintain that quality while being such a large operation.”

And Alto Olive Oil, from the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, can also showcase the quality of its globally awardwinning products to international visitors and local guests alike. “It’s a bespoke, custom blend of extra virgin olive oil specially made for ICC Sydney,” says Alto’s Westerly Isbaih. “It just made a lot of sense because we always wanted to work with likeminded people. I always feel that Tony and what ICC Sydney do is really a wonderful thing for Australian growers and producers because they really make a point of highlighting the efforts behind what it is that we do and proudly putting it on a plate and saying where it’s from and what it is. I think a lot of the world is looking to Australia because we have such a good reputation around our farming and production practices when it comes to food, so it made sense for us to absolutely work with Tony.”

That philosophy also extends to the drinks, including a locally made non-alcoholic

kombucha, matched by ICC Sydney sommelier William Wilson to a dessert of seasonal blackberries, kombu, vanilla pear and chocolate. The relationship with ICC Sydney means Brendon Vallejo from Black Radish Kombucha has been able to expand the indigenous range of his oak barrel-fermented handmade drinks that grace the tables of ICC Sydney.

Only 1000 bottles at a time are made. It is naturally fermented,uses organic Australian cane sugar and is flavoured with local produce, such as apple juice from Logan Brae Orchards on the Shipley Plateau, five minutes from the UNESCO World Heritage Blue Mountains town of Blackheath, or native flavours of strawberry gum, lemon aspen or Illawarra plum.

But you can also indulge in one of the thousands of fine wines cellared at ICC Sydney and curated by William Wilson, more than 90 per cent of which are from New South Wales.

“The ICC has been a game changer,” says NSW Wine Industry Association President and Swinging Bridge winemaker Tom Ward, “it has engaged with the New South Wales wine industry since inception and has continued to support us. ICC practices what they preach, supporting sustainable local businesses in all aspects of their development.”

Local Hero : Alana Dimou eating cake

While Pierre Issa’s indulgent little handcrafted pats of Pepe Saya Butter can be found everywhere from Qantas First Class to a slew of Sydney fine diners, they are also on our lunch table. “They just go above and beyond what you expect from a convention centre,” he says of ICC Sydney.

“The reality is that what Tony and Lynell have done is to showcase New South Wales’ best producers. That is what is hair-raising, from a producer’s point of view—being on that list. There are maybe five or six chefs that are actually doing it in Sydney, that have that ethos about food but none on the same scale. They believe in Best in Class, so if you are on the menu at ICC Sydney, you can bet your bottom dollar you are Best in Class. They don’t choose second grade. It’s the best of Australian produce, with a strong focus on New South Wales.”

ICC Sydney’s food philosophy is all about balance, says Tony. “We’ve put together smart menus that not only use really good, seasonal and ethically sourced ingredients but is also packed with nutrients to keep event attendees fuelled and alert while supporting growers along the way,” he says.

“The whole team is invested in our food philosophy and we’re now at a place where our guests get to dine on the best produce available and we can control when produce is picked, when it lands on the plate and ultimately its freshness. It gives us that customised approach to everything we do and why we offer clients and visitors so much more than a venue.”