In a sign of changing times post-pandemic, renowned Canberra chef and produce champion Janet Jeffs is refocusing her Ginger Group operations at the National Arboretum to meet the growing demand for lighter, faster food at her cafe.
The restaurant side of the Arboretum operation will close, making room for more casual dining and family-friendly spaces but retaining a focus on locally produced food.
The Ginger Group has been at the Arboretum since it opened in 2013, pairing a high-end restaurant with a busy cafe operation, both enjoying spectacular views sweeping down through the Arboretum and across the lake.
But while Janet says demand is up 40 per cent on the cafe side over the past 12 months, there’s been a definite change in momentum that’s prompted the switch.
“The cafe is incredibly busy these days, and when we looked at it, it was obvious people wanted those tables,” she tells Region.
“The Arboretum is very, very popular with just about everyone, including families and children, so we thought we better crack on and respond to that demand.
“I think it probably also shows the way things are economically at the moment. Fewer people want the full fine-dining experience. More want good food that’s well priced and easier to access.”
Head chef Marie Koenig is returning to work on the cafe’s new menu, set to launch after Father’s Day in September. The menu upgrade will continue to focus on Janet’s strong ties with local producers, nurtured over decades in Canberra.
“Paddock to plate has always mattered to me,” she says.
”The interesting thing I’m now seeing in these longstanding relationships with producers is the second generation coming through.
“Boxgum Grazing, for example, was started by Clare and Sam Johnson and their son Sid is now taking the lead. The same has happened with Tobias and Beatrix Koenig from Ingelara.
“I love seeing this happen and it’s important to keep the young ones producing and growing food.”
It’s a phenomenon Janet refers to as the ”100-mile Canberra food shed”, and exemplifies her commitment to walking the talk on food, literally, from hosting educational events to growing her own rare-breed pigs.
Janet’s own lengthy foodie pedigree is well known: she began as an apprentice to legendary Adelaide chef Cheong Liew and went on to work with Maggie Beer at Pheasant Farm in the Barossa.
Moving to Canberra in 1995, she opened Juniperberry at the Red Hill shops, won the catering contract at the National Gallery, ran the dining at Old Parliament House and moved to the Arboretum when it opened.
She’s unfazed by a challenge: opening night at the Village Centre attracted 300 guests but Janet and her crew had only received the keys to the kitchen on the same day. While Janet took a break in the past few years to return to the fine-art studies she’d walked away from as a student, it’s been a packed decade at Canberra’s favourite recreation destination.
“I love being at the Arboretum,” she says. “It’s a unique space that appeals to so many different demographics – kids visit the playground, you take Nanna to see the bonsai, everyone can enjoy long walks on all the fantastic trails. This place has been an absolute gift to the Canberra community as well as all the tourists.”