Four hundred dollars, some vanilla beans, and a thriving idea was what kicked started Tasmanian-born Josh Rea’s food-enthralled business. The success was so overwhelming that it inspired him to open his first food store Gourmet Life in Sydney’s Edgecliff.
“When Coca Cola bought out Vanilla Coke it brought such a big demand for vanilla beans around the world; the prices just went through the roof. At that stage, one of the farms I was buying from had no real idea of this at the time, and I managed to buy a huge supply worth $200. When I took it to the chefs they were paying nearly $1000 for it, and they were happy to pay that price,” he says.
“So I went from earning no money to quite a lot almost instantaneously, and that’s how it all really began.”
Although supplying vanilla beans was just the beginning of this initially home-based business he called Waimea Trading. Rea said he wanted to bring one-of-a-kind, seasonal products that chefs would go crazy over. He began also specialising in importing and supplying saffron, caviar, truffles, and fresh European mushrooms to some of Australia’s top chefs, including Quay’s Peter Gilmore, Est.’s Peter Doyle and Aria’s Matt Moran.
“I was chasing down every restaurant in Australia to sell caviar, truffles, and mushrooms. I found out at the time I was the only person doing it, and it was the most beneficial thing you could do,” he says.
“I was knocking on the back door of restaurants at all hours of the day, especially when most people put the can at the door at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. By then I had been in the game for 12 hours, and I’d still be at it for another five. It was a massive opportunity especially pre-GFC.”
Piggybacking off his foraging background as a young boy where he spent time on the water fishing with his father and helping his mother cultivate their edible garden, the passionate foodie’s expansion of Waimea Trading grew so much it forced him to open up Gourmet Life.
Now, more than 1,000 imported foodie treasures grace the shelves. Some of these include Rome’s oldest coffee label, Sant’ Eustachio; jams crafted in hand-made Venetian glass jars by Michelin star chef Moreno Cedroni; French spice range Terre Exotique and its unique varieties including Bordeaux Cabernet salt, Yuzu zest, and Espelette chilli; and A L’Olivier olive oils, chutneys, pastas, mustards, and vinegars.
There’s also sought-after fresh hazelnuts from Nocciole d’Etite, Europe’s most renowned producer of the variety, hand-picked by an Italian father and his son and sorted by the mother and daughter team using methods passed down through generations. The hazeults are so good they’re picked, vacuum-sealed, and air freighted to Gourmet Life within 72 hours of being cracked out of their shells.
But Rea’s philosophy has not been just about sourcing unique labels. He has also made it a mission to show respect to the products he brings in by being cautious in how they are delivered to him. For example, he said he chooses to airfreight his spices rather than sea freight because the method exposes the product to too much air.
“When you ship it from one side of the world to the other in unrefrigerated containers it all goes rancid by the time it gets here. It’s like a big bottle of wine as soon as you rip the cork out of the bottle of wine the oxygen is killing it; oxygen is the enemy. So when you air freight the product arrives in a lot better condition.”
While continuing to serve as a unique supplier to Australia’s top chefs, Rea believes Gourmet Life will an ongoing project for him. “The grand idea is it will be a panini bar and wine bar. We will also be running a cooking school.”