The Greasy Zoe's owner-chef weighs in on what's good in the Yarra Valley.

A country girl who grew up picking home-grown vegetables, bottling preserves and baking bread with her family, Zoe Birch has become one of Victoria’s most important chefs. After cooking at Middle Brighton Baths and The Courthouse, Birch and her husband Lachlan Gardner opened the eight-seat produce-driven restaurant Greasy Zoe’s in 2017. The micro-fine diner focuses on sustainability and seasonality, offering a new menu every week to minimise its environmental footprint. Together, Birch and Gardner 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. The suppliers are all local, and they’re big on supporting the community.

My local is the Yarra Valley: the place I call home.

I know I’m in the Valley when the scenery changes from skyscrapers and concrete to rolling green pastures, grape vines and produce growing all around.

My defining food moment in the Yarra Valley was eating at The Healesville Hotel back in its glory days over 10 years ago when it had two hats. Such an elegant, sophisticated dining room with a classic English-style public bar adjacent. Quince dining room showed off the best of the YV local produce. Picture slow-cooked daube of beef with baby vegetables and a classic mixed leaf salad picked that day from the farm in Healesville. Perhaps ricotta and spinach rotolo or a simple pan-fried piece of fish with pomegranate seeds and fennel. One of the original paddock-to-plate dining experiences that influenced my career path.

The best new thing I’ve found is Cheesemonger Sophie, artisan cheese and pantry items both local and international. Hands down the best sandwiches around, filled with expertly sourced cheese. My favourites are local baguette with Colston Bassett Stilton, apple, walnuts, crunchy leaves and fruit marmalade. Or their interpretation of a Reuben: the Fermentary’s jalapeño kraut, slow-cooked brisket and raclette on crunchy sourdough; yum. They also stock Stone & Crow cheese, a local cheese made by Jack Holman in Warranwood. Without a doubt the most impressive cheese coming out of the Valley and Australia.

When I want to go crazy on a meal, I book a table for lunch at TarraWarra Estate, where I first check out the latest exhibition at the museum before settling in for a lavish afternoon feast. Buxton trout is a staple on the menu here, served with roe, fragrant herbs and flowers from the veggie garden on the estate. Don’t leave without dessert, it’s an absolute must. I love their macadamia tart with jasmine rice cream and koji caramel. They also make amazing wines.

When I want to dazzle friends from out of town, I like to stop in at Payten & Jones, a neighbourhood wine bar and cellar door in Healesville, the heart of the Yarra Valley, owned and operated by local legends Behn Payten and Troy Jones. The outdoor area doubles as a street art gallery with a regular rotation of tasty food from local food vans. The boys specialise in punchy reds. Their sangiovese and nebbiolo are full of bright fruit and are famous in the Valley. I love to relax on a Sunday arvo with their Fot Li vermouth on ice (they’re the exclusive Australian importers). Come here for personalised service, delicious, sustainable wines and a real taste of Healesville from two people born and bred here.  

When you come to our place, Greasy Zoe’s, you can expect a unique, intimate dining experience by Lachlan and I shared with just eight guests per sitting. Lachlan provides personal service while I cook solo in the kitchen making everything entirely from scratch. We source the freshest hyper-local produce from Timbarra Farm, Sugarloaf Produce, Unearthed Co. Mushrooms and Heidy’s Pastured Poultry, our friends in the Valley. We like to have fun here and want you to come along for the ride. The evening might start with a croissant pastry tart, topped with almond miso, basil, zucchini and agretti, and then move on to a wakame egg custard, cucumber and garlic scapes served with a spear grass doughnut topped with macadamia and Murray cod roe. We specialise in making everything from scratch here so our cheese course is always a highlight. Imagine a cow’s milk cheddar, aged for a full year, grated over blackcurrant jam served on a warm spelt crumpet. For dessert, we keep things light and like to steer closer to the savoury side of sweet rather than the sweet side of sweet to finish. Enter duck egg custard, rhubarb, purple basil and 90 per cent dark chocolate from Castlemaine. 

When I want to drink something Victorian, my first choice is Yarra Yarra, grown and made in Steels Creek of the Yarra Valley by Ian Maclean. An amazing example of a Victorian wine that tastes just like it’s from Bordeaux. My personal favourite is Ian’s syrah.

My favourite place to stock up on supplies is Nature’s Harvest in Hurstbridge. Located just across the road from us at GZ’s, this is the place to get everything organic, biodynamic, sustainable, local and delicious. I go here for the organic Kinglake blueberries, Tom’s Paddock eggs from Glenburn, organic meat from Cherry Tree in Gippsland and local honey you can pour yourself, straight from the barrel. They also have a peanut butter machine, local pottery, organic wine and the best gluten-free bread on offer.  

If I could change one thing about eating and drinking around here it would be less travel to get to great places. The Yarra Valley is picturesque but spaced out; thank god for Uber.

But the one thing I hope never changes in the Yarra Valley is the people. It’s close to country living out here. Everyone is incredibly friendly, generous and passionate about the area and what they do. It’s a great way of life.

Greasy Zoe’s, shop 3/850 Heidelberg-Kinglake Rd, Hurstbridge, (03) 9718 0324, open 6.30pm-10pm Thu-Fri and 3pm-10pm Sat,, @greasyzoes