Kane Pollard wants to make Topiary on the outskirts of Adelaide one of the best restaurants in the country. He tells John Burfitt about his locavore approach
It doesn’t take long to work out where Kane Pollard’s passion for all things fresh and direct from the land stems from. Within minutes of starting a chat with the owner and head chef of Topiary, Pollard is telling tales of his childhood. He reminisces about days spent in the South Australian countryside foraging through fields for berries and cherries to serve that very same night on the family dinner table. Then there are the stories about walking over hills through wild fennel, a herb that has remained a staple ingredient in his kitchens ever since, and which, when in season, can always be found on the Topiary menu.
Freshness was such a part of Pollard’s upbringing that he can’t remember spending much time in supermarkets as a kid. The Pollard family were market gardeners, so all their food came from their own gardens, the local green grocer or the nearby butcher, and it’s obvious some childhood impressions have never left him.
Pollard’s embrace of the 100-mile approach to food goes beyond simply being on trend; it’s much more than a good marketing ploy—it is just the way Pollard has always been.
“The whole start-to-finish process got me intrigued from early on, and it remains the way I work today,” Pollard, 30, admits.
“I think I’ve come full circle with my approach to food, but I think most chefs are like that. We all start with an original passion and things that had a major influence, you take in whatever you learned along the way, but come back to your roots and the original passion that kicked you off when you were young.”
The motto on Topiary’s website perfectly sums up the way Pollard and his team operate: “Whatever we can’t pick from our own edible garden and surrounds, is sourced locally.”
In addition to the vegetables grown in the restaurant’s extensive gardens, all butters, breads, cheeses and smoked meats on the Topiary menu are produced in house.
“I believe this has contributed to the overall success as many places buy in these days, but when the bread and butter to start your meal at Topiary has been handmade and churned on site, it’s a sign of the quality and work that goes into even the simple things on the menu.”
Topiary is located in the foothills of Tea Tree Gully, within the grounds of Newman’s Nursery, about 30 minutes drive from Adelaide, and the house rule of showcasing only the best local produce means that the coffee is roasted in nearby Stepney, the milk is from the Tweedvale dairy in Lobethal, and the entire wine and beer list is South Australian.
This has been Pollard’s approach ever since he bought Topiary four years ago, two years after joining the restaurant as head chef. Previously, Pollard had worked in Adelaide in such restaurants as The Earl of Aberdeen, Radisson Playford, Locavore and Citrus, and also in Cairns at Salted Vue.
When Pollard went for his first interview for the chef job back in 2010, he saw the original tea house nestled amid the greenery of Newman’s Nursery and immediately had a long-term vision for the business.
Topiary was already a successful boutique café located in an historic 100-year-old building amid lush gardens, but Pollard felt it offered far greater potential.
“The day of my interview, I got there a little early and went for a walk and just was hit by this wave of inspiration of all the things we could achieve here—and I hadn’t felt like that in a long time,” he recalls.
“I remember walking along a little path with the river running and past these amazing edible plants and flowers thinking, ‘I have to be here.’”
Within weeks, he had been hired as head chef. Two years later, when the owners were considering moving on, Pollard, his wife and her parents made an offer for the business.
Once he took over, however, Pollard realised that customers loved the Topiary they knew. Changing the model to a busier enterprise offering a more varied selection, additional sittings throughout the day and a degustation menu that included such fare as ‘South Australian Beach Scene’ and ‘Mount Pleasant Venison, Wild Mushrooms and Pine’ would be a dramatic change of pace for regulars.
“There were definitely a few people in the beginning that weren’t too keen at all on the direction we were trying to take it,” he admits.
“There was a lot of positive along with negative feedback and in the beginning, I took all of that straight to heart and it was scary. I had no idea if what was being stated on some of the online reviews was going to impact on our income, and it was clear some people just did not understand the direction we were headed.”
Those months taught Pollard about the reality of changing a business model. Topiary’s brand had long been based on a boutique menu of café treats, and shaking that up came at a cost. So instead of alienating and losing his customer base, Pollard decided to try to keep them onside by taking them on the journey as Topiary evolved.
“It became really important that customers understood what was going on, instead of walking in and discovering ‘Bam! This is what the place is about now,’” he says.
“It was a matter of building a story, so that the customers got what was going on and everything conveyed that change—from the look of the place and the menu through to the service. My wife was very instrumental in being on the floor and educating the staff about what we were trying to achieve, so they could then convey that to the customers. We wanted to bring them in on the story of the change, rather than fight them every step of the way.”
One of the best ways to achieve this was to also put the brakes on. “It became a matter of being sympathetic to what had already been there and just taking things really slowly. That was really important,” he says.
“But you also have to stick to your guns and if you’ve got a strong focus and the end goal constantly in mind, then you just keep going, heading in the right direction with quality food from great places and dealing with this great range of local suppliers. With that, I just couldn’t see it going wrong. By being patient as we rolled out the changes, it hasn’t, thankfully.
“I had to take on board the clientele that were already there and keep them happy while I was also attracting a new diner in. That took time and patience.”
Keeping his team members involved in the evolution of the business proved to be invaluable, not only in selling the changes to customers but also in maintaining staff morale.
“I realised long ago that staffing was not just about paying wages and filling positions, it was about finding the right people, treating them with respect, keeping them inspired and empowering them,” he says.
“The more they are educated and the more they know what is going on, the stronger and more confident they are on the floor and the more inspired they are when they walk in. When you are taking a business forward, you need everyone to play a part in that process.”
These days, Saturday nights are busy at Topiary, with degustation dinners drawing a new crowd. The evolution continues, but at a pace that is just a little easier for everyone to follow—including Pollard, who admits he continues to balance his patrons’ expectations with his own ambitions. Among his future plans are opening the doors at night more often and developing his food production and test kitchen at Artisan Providore SA.
The one clear ambition he has kept firmly in mind is to keep developing Topiary until it becomes, he says, “one of the best restaurants in Australia.
“Every day in the restaurant kitchen, I look out the window at all the things growing, the seasons changing, it’s impossible not to be inspired by that.
“I’ve always gone with gut feeling and felt what is going on around me. That’s what started this journey and what’s led to the belief that we can actually create something unbelievable here.”