geoff jansz

Chef Geoff Jansz shares his love of food

In Australia, if there is anyone who has put the “celebrity” in “celebrity chef” it’s Geoff Jansz. For more than two decades he has hosted shows and segments on Australia’s most popular television programs. He has always brought a gentle wit and polish to his work but, beneath that, a passion for the food he is preparing has always been evident.

I spent a day with Jansz strolling around his extensive farm in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. As we discussed his life so far, humour was only ever a sentence or two away but, as the day progressed, I became enthralled by the breadth and depth of Jansz’s vision for a better relationship with the food we eat.

From pharmacy to food

Geoff Jansz is a trained pharmacist but his passion for food and cooking is so obvious that I felt impelled to ask him why he spent time studying pharmacy. “I practised for three years as a pharmacist at Bondi Beach. Great years. Hello, Andrea Rothman, my first employer as a chemist. I hope your business has recovered,” he answers. I told you humour was ever present. “I went to university,” he continues, “obediently for my parents.”

When someone has been as high-profile as Jansz, the tale of his path into cooking has been told many times. The story goes that Jansz’s entry into the food industry began when he was studying pharmacy and would cook and experiment with food for other students, all the while visiting restaurants whenever possible to watch chefs work and to sample results. I ask whether he had any formal food training and he answers with a shake of the head, “No, I studied in the kitchen, both mine and that of inspirational chefs like Mark Armstrong in Australia and Bocuse in France.”

“The key is being in tune with plants, the environment and our bodies. If you can’t grow it — know it.”

It’s one thing to learn about food and another to make it a profession, so I asked Jansz how he came to open his own restaurant in Picton, NSW. With a twinkle in his eye he answers swiftly, “I had the key.” Then he continues with serious tone, “Seriously, the universe decided. I simply enquired after a restaurant for sale and somehow it was mine!”

I wonder whether the venture into the restaurant world was a response to people saying he was a wonderful cook, but Jansz quickly corrects that notion. “It was never about feedback from others or that I thought I was good,” he says. “Professional cooking was just the next attractive step to take in my life’s journey in food. Making stocks, breads, pastries, dealing with game, having a range of professional knives, smokehouses, precision cutting, sausage making … God, I needed a restaurant!”

It must, though, take a degree of self-belief to make the leap into being a professional cook. According to Jansz, however, the belief is not necessarily in the self. He says, “I didn’t particularly believe in me … I believed in food and felt that each step towards perfection was, in fact, a little step that could be achieved. I still haven’t stopped taking little steps in food almost daily. As far as professional cooking versus domestic goes, I have a saying: ‘If you don’t play the violin for a living, I consider you just a fiddler.’ Joining the pro ranks in food was a humbling dream — I hardly noticed the third divorce.” Just so you know, Jansz is still with his one and only wife in a loving relationship that has seen them raise four children … I did warn you about the humour!

As a restaurateur, then, Jansz developed his ideas about food, experimenting while dipping into his extensive vegetable Garden and nurturing his free-range ducks and his carefully fed game. This homegrown approach attracted many diners to his restaurant, all keen to sample food that was not only at its freshest but that reflected the area where it was grown.

With simple and direct candour, Jansz expresses an attitude to the ingredients he uses when cooking that drives his whole endeavour. He says, “It is a relationship. In my case a relationship starting with the seed, watching and nurturing and by the time it is harvested we have a history. The same attention and respect are expressed in the kitchen.” He pauses and then adds, “I owe the ingredients something.”

So here we have a man deeply committed to the food he produces and prepares; that commitment leads to success and soon television producers are knocking on the door and an unexpected career is about to blossom.

Lights, camera, digestion!

Jansz’s television career has included being a food presenter on the phenomenally successful Burke’s Backyard and hosting his own shows What’s Cooking and Fresh. Through these programs, Jansz became a household name. What’s Cooking, for example, was broadcast daily in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. So how did he go from restaurant owner and chef to media personality? “All of a sudden,” Jansz answers. “It was a phone call from the ABC, a screen test, a deep breath and the Everybody program.”

From the ABC Jansz moved to Channel 9 and brought his charm and passion for food to millions of viewers. I observe that he makes the difficult task of cooking in front of cameras, under lights, with a crew behind the scenes watching you appear, easy. “Thank you,” he nods, “but anything other than cooking and I’d fall apart. Food and cooking are my friends and we had fun … the camera happened to be there. I always enjoyed the teams I worked with and the rapport came across.”

Of course, you don’t work in television for a couple of decades without some tales to tell and, while Jansz really is all about the food, I manage to wheedle a couple of stories out of him. He recalls, “I won’t name the chef, but he was well awarded in Melbourne, and I had only just begun my cooking show. My first producer didn’t have much faith in me and placed this experienced, suave Frenchman as my guest, obviously to compensate for my ineptitudes. Halfway through the segment his tea-towel and sleeve were ablaze. He stole the show.

“Know your body, know your limits and don’t turn something delicious and glorious into a problem due to overindulging."

“Then one time while filming in Vietnam I was taken by my smirking hosts and crew to a specially chosen restaurant in Hoi An. Sure enough, out comes the deep-fried scorpion. I glanced around the room and spotted a couple of other scorpiophiles, so defiantly I crunched through the arthropod. Think of a lightbulb filled with vomit — I was only in a Vietnamese hospital for two days.

“On another occasion I was driven deep into a township in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The only other car was the Mercedes in front of us being driven by the witchdoctor conducting the tour. We arrived at a typical family home, the guests slowly gathered, assembled musical instruments and the most amazing ensemble of gifted musicians played vibrant, meaningful songs. Time to eat. The smile was ready! A sheep’s head, slowly simmered with vegies, was now smiling out of the pot. With great humility, I accepted the first eyeball.”

Beyond his extensive television commitments Jansz has been a public speaker, has written three books and has been a regular contributor to the magazines Australian Gourmet Traveller and House & Garden. I ask him if he enjoys writing and he replies, “Yes, but I hate deadlines. I find writing blogs for the website is less forced — I like keeping the regular chat going.” Jansz’s blog can be found on his website, a site that largely features his farm, bringing us neatly to the 11.5 hectares in the Southern Highlands of NSW that have been the soil out of which the rest of his life has grown.

The farm

To discover the origins of his time on the farm, we need to go back to 1994 when Jansz moved his family to Melbourne to be close to his new job hosting What’s Cooking. The move took Jansz and his wife and two girls at the time away from extended families in NSW. As Jansz observes on his website, though, “Great year, great house, great suburb, but we missed life in the country. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Melbophile; both daughters live there now and my Melbourne friends are genuine and lifelong. But, seriously, how long can one survive without turning a pile of compost! We needed proper eggs and our own fruit. So Natasha and Olivia were strapped into the child seats and it was off to ‘Farms for Sale’ at Woodend and Red Hill.”

Eventually, though, the pull of family became too strong and the Janszs returned to home turf in Bowral to continue the search for land. They found a property called ‘Elysian Park’ that was for sale. Jansz recalls, “It had everything we wanted except the price tag. However, in the blink of an eye we had the keys to the front door and the bank manager had my family jewels in the palm of his hand. My darling daughters could ride horses and breathe fresh air and I could develop a food epicentre.”

The nature of that epicentre is incredibly important to Jansz and he credits much of his food-growing philosophy to one man. “I learned from a wild Macedonian gardener named Naume. We fed the soil, which in turn fed our plants — composted organic matter, witches’ brews with fish heads and seaweed and homemade grappa were always on the menu.”

Jansz believes, though, that an “organic” label is sometimes not enough. “I can grow awful things within the guidelines of organic farming,” he says. “The key is being in tune with plants, the environment and our bodies. If you can’t grow it — know it.” Jansz also believes strongly in local and seasonal food. He observes, “Ripe fruit and vegetables, full of flavour and nutrition, are usually soft and don’t Travel well. Seasonal food is available, affordable and at its best.”

“I don’t think I have ever cooked anything without the person or the situation in mind. It gives purpose and meaning and quite often direction.”

Jansz summarises his farming and food philosophy as, “Grow. Sow. Prepare. Share.” When I ask him what this means to him personally, he says, “It’s a lifetime of food involvement and a system of care. Those of us with children don’t want to miss out on any stage of their growth. Similarly, with food I want to be involved and invigorated, engaged and enamoured with every step.”

Geoff has almost 12 hectares on which to pursue his vision, but he recognises that not everyone has a farm or even a backyard to grow their own vegies. To show the city dweller what is possible, he has a solar-powered, self-contained growing system ideal for urban farmers, fully planted and on display at the back door of his house. Of his cooking classes, Jansz says, “When you attend one of my cooking classes you will fully appreciate the benefits of growing and picking your own produce, followed by eating it soon after. I want to encourage people to take control of what they consume and show that anyone can easily achieve this goal.”

Food philosophy

In case it is not already clear, Jansz believes that your intention when it comes to food is critical and that includes the social aspect. He says, “I don’t think I have ever cooked anything without the person or the situation in mind. It gives purpose and meaning and quite often direction.”

I ask him what role he sees food playing in the family and he responds, “It’s as important as the family wants it to be. What’s important to a family unit is doing things together, sharing, doing, talking at the same time. Food is a great way to do this … also music, gardening or Greco Roman wrestling.”

As to a healthy relationship with food, Jansz says, “Know your body, know your limits and don’t turn something delicious and glorious (perhaps chocolate) into a problem due to overindulging. There are very few things to be avoided completely, except of course for ethical reasons. So just stay within healthy boundaries. As far as what makes a food healthy, beautifully grown, just-picked and simply cooked ingredients deliver the most flavour and nutrition. A good mix of food groups is important, so a varied diet is good, and try not to overeat.”

If you are reading all this food talk and feeling your own culinary skills are inadequate, take heart. According to Jansz, “If someone wants to cook but says ‘I can’t cook’, I’d say you actually can learn … in fact, Terry, if WellBeing ever wants to run a competition to find that person, send them to me for three days and I will turn them around. However, if someone doesn’t want to cook, that’s fine, but it’s unlikely they will learn.”

The final word from this man who loves food and who loves to laugh just has to be: “To me food should be all about enjoyment, however if you’re inclined to dig a little, every mouthful contains a myriad of stories, of truths and possibilities. There’s creativity, possibly healing, elements of surprise, matters of ethics, and hopefully love and adventure.”

For more details, visit or listen to episodes of The Bite.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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