at home with...

Jo Whitton

From Quirky Cooking

You inspire so many with your deliciously healthy and hearty meals. Where did your journey of cooking begin?

Thank you! I can't really remember a time when I wasn't in the kitchen, cooking or helping mum, from the time I was tiny. Growing up, Mum cooked just about everything from scratch, using a lot of produce from our garden and the local markets. She baked her own bread, biscuits, pies, pastries, cakes... and her cooking was well-known amongst friends, family and neighbours! She always encouraged us to experiment and 'play' with food, and we were all taught to help with the family meals and baking from a young age. My older sister loved cooking the more 'gourmet' dishes and inspired me to try new things, and we still really enjoy cooking together. It has always been something I enjoy - I love the creativity and the challenges (especially when someone needs the ingredients changed for special diets) and of course the results!

We love your approach to whole foods on a regenerative level. Can you speak more on this?

I've experienced the regenerative effect of culinary medicine on my body first hand. A few years ago, our family transitioned from a mostly whole-food, gluten-free diet to a gut-healing, nutrient-dense diet, using traditional ingredients farmed in a way that also heals the land. One thing I've learnt is that our gut microbiome is very similar to the soil microbiome. Both the gut and the soil need a wide variety of bacteria to thrive. Food production and farming practices that upset the balance of bacteria cause a lot more health issues for ourselves and the planet than many people realise. Because we don't see these detrimental changes happening overnight (usually), most people tend to ignore the science and do what's 'easy' at the time. For me, taking two years to do a really deep dive into improving my family's gut health wasn't easy, but oh it was so worth it. My son's OCD and anxiety symptoms disappeared and he began to grow healthier and stronger, we saw our skin issues improve, food intolerances disappeared, my weight balanced (I was very underweight), I began to have a lot more energy, colds and hay-fever decreased, black circles under our eyes disappeared, hormonal issues improved... all because we improved our gut health. The principles we learnt during this time have set my kids up for good health for life, and have flowed over into many other areas, including the importance I now place on "participating in this biological womb we live in", as Joel Salatin says. This includes having an organic veggie garden in the backyard, buying honey, veggies and meat from local producers that I trust to use good farming practices, and supporting organic and regenerative farming.

A mum of four beautiful children. How do you find balance between it all?

Yes, I have four kids and I homeschooled them all! Crazy, huh! But I wouldn't have it any other way. My Quirky Cooking business started with a food blog which I began 15 years ago. At first I just worked on my blog at night after the kids went to bed, and sometimes during breaks from teaching and cooking. Later, as the kids grew and were able to do more of their school work independently, we would all work together. We'd all sit at the dining table with me working on my laptop and jumping up to test recipes while they worked, and it was nice to be right there to help them when they needed me, rather than in an office somewhere from 9-5. I think when you homeschool from the beginning, work and life just intermesh and it's not two separate things that you have to 'juggle'. Quirky Cooking grew into a family business just naturally, as my kids were always by my side. My 26 year-old daughter now works for me part time (and also manages a vanilla farm part time); and my 22 year-old son will be working with me part time this year as IT support. They've all been helpers at many of my events, and I love that Quirky Cooking is a way of life for them, too. They are now 26, 24, 22 and 20 years old, two have moved out and another is moving next year - but we are still very close and spend a lot of time together.

We enjoyed watching along as you renovated your kitchen earlier this year. How did you find that process?

Longer than I expected, never having renovated before! Ha! But it was very satisfying seeing it come together - I love my new kitchen. It's wonderful to have a light, bright space to cook in and I LOVE my green Falcon oven - it's the focal point of the kitchen. It was really cool that my 24 year old son got a cabinet-making apprenticeship just before the renos started, and the first kitchen he ever worked on was ours! Pretty special. My kitchen is definitely the heart of the home - the kids and their friends are often gathered around my kitchen island, eating everything they can find, drinking cuppas and chatting loudly. I love it.

What inspires you the most when you are creating?

Usually childhood memories of favourite foods. To be able to recreate something we loved as kids so that my family and friends approve despite all the healthy 'tweaks' I make is my ultimate goal! I also love colour and design (art being my first career), so now and then I just want to make something beautiful and really take the time to enjoy the process as well as delight my friends (and online community) with the finished product. I'm also really inspired by fresh, seasonal produce, especially if it's from my own garden. I love working out ways to use what I have.

What is your favourite thing to do for downtime/unwinding?

If it's the end of the day and I'm tired, my favourite thing to do is to hop into bed with a good book. I love gardening as I find it so calming on the nervous system, but that's more of an early morning activity for me - I wake up at 5.30am, jump out of bed and head out my bedroom door to the garden in my bare feet and pjs and enjoy that beautiful, cool time of day with just the birds to keep me company. I like to sit in the sunshine with a cuppa and my feet in the grass, or lay in the hammock and look at the trees for a break on a busy day. On Saturdays, my favourite thing to do is clean up the kitchen so it's sparkling, then potter around and cook in a relaxed way, without rushing, getting lost in the creativity and deliciousness with music playing and kids and friends popping in to try what I make. I also love walking in the rainforest, sitting by waterfalls and swimming or paddleboarding in our local crater lake, especially with the family.

You’ve been wearing MahaShe for such a long time. How did you first come across us?

I think I first saw MahaShe at your store in Brunswick Heads! My friend lives nearby and I've visited often over the past few years, it's such a lovely area. The patterns and colours of MahaShe have always drawn me in, I love the classic styles that look good on just about any body, and I love that they are 100% cotton (because when you live in Far North Queensland you don't want to wear cloth that sticks to you like plastic on a hot day!). A few years ago I had a big photo shoot for my second book and I ended up buying a bunch of MahaShe dresses for that, and ever since then it's been my favourite brand. Every time a new season comes round I'm excited to see what you've come up with. Such gorgeous materials, and I always get asked about them. Love them!