Hands-on food

Northcote Bakeshop owner Peter Byrne has a background as a barista but the espresso machine at his High Street cafe doesn't have pride of place. On the contrary, it's squished sideways against a wall to create a stage for the breads, biscuits and cakes that are the Bakeshop's lifeblood.

There are vegan empanadas, berry frangipane tarts, plump spanakopitas and rustic, non-identical bread rolls stuffed with fresh fillings. Jazz plays on the record player. A wall-mounted baker's paddle announces that rye bread is baked on Fridays.

Tiny tables are crammed with northern nibblers asking the big questions. (Yarn bomb or crocheted cape? Fixie or Dutch bike?) The pleasing atmosphere is woven of all these elements but the key element is the comforting smell of baking.

"When we opened in March, people asked two questions," says Peter Byrne. "Do you bake everything here?" and "Do you have sourdough bread?" The answer to the first question was an easy 'yes' given the cafe's moniker. The response to the second query was 'no' at first, but the questions were sufficiently persistent that Byrne pulled a baker out of retirement. He built them a traditional rye sourdough culture that they've lovingly nurtured since, cranking out loaves without ready-made rising agents. "I think a lot of people are wishing back to the old days when you had your local baker, butcher and fruiterer, when everything was made on a small scale, not coming from a big factory," says Byrne. He doesn't think it's purely nostalgia that drives his customers though. "When it's made locally, people know it's fresh and they know you're putting in the time and effort," he says.

And put in he does. "When you make everything yourself, you work like a dog and you're constantly fixing problems. You've got more staff, more stock, more space, more work." He says it's worth it. "It's how things used to be and how things should be." Byrne especially loves it when someone queries the ingredients of a cake or bread. "I don't have to call someone up or look at a label," he says. "I know what's in everything. I feel confident to stand behind my products."

Cafe veteran Nathan Toleman knows that his customers appreciate the fact that just about everything is made in house. "We've always made our own jams, sauces, chutneys, relishes and cakes," he says, and that's communicated on the menus and by the staff. "People in Melbourne want to know how much involvement the cafe has in creating their products." Toleman has purchased electrical smokers for his South Yarra cafe Two
Birds One Stone and his new enterprise Top Paddock in Richmond. Hot-smoked salmon appears in the Two Birds'
Blonde Omelette and cold-smoked cured salmon turns up with the corn and zucchini fritters. "You can purchase beautiful smoked salmon," he acknowledges, but spending $500 on a smoker isn't just about the product on the plate. "It's also about giving the chefs more of a sense of ownership of what they're creating," says Toleman. "They're working 50 hours a week cooking breakfast. If I can give them a bit of variety and excitement, it's a small gesture."

At Small Victories in Carlton North, chef and co-owner Alric Hansen hasn't found $500 in his kitchen budget
for a push-button smoker but he's still smoking fish and meat. "I've fashioned a smoker from two bain-marie
containers and a wire rack," he explains. "It's rudimentary but I like the hands-on approach." Hansen uses a blend of cherry, apple and hickory wood from top smoker Tom Cooper but his cures and methods have undergone many tweaks. "People don't tend to give away their secrets," he says. "Experimentation is part of the satisfaction."

Hansen also ferments and pickles vegetables, makes sausages and black pudding, and his own yoghurt and kefir (a fermented dairy drink). Part of the DIY motivation is having more control over what he feeds his customers. "I'm smoking bacon using free-range rare breed pork," he says. "I know exactly where the meat is coming from
and I can control the saltiness and the nitrites that give it flavour and colour."

It's something of a return to his roots as well. "I grew up in New Zealand with hippy parents. We had a henhouse and goats and Mum would get up at six in the morning to make bread." When Hansen first became a chef those from-scratch practices fell away. "I was enamoured with technique and shiny, clean food," he says. "When I became older and more health conscious I started to revive old habits." Now, doing everything himself simply makes sense. "I'm a cook so that's what I do," he says.


Kenneth Meow is a cafe connoisseur and ex-restaurateur who seems to tweet (as @emeow) from a different cafe each day. He sees it as a big plus when cafes make an extra effort to create dishes from the ground up. "I appreciate a cafe that puts a lot of thought and workmanship into what they serve," he says. "There's character there. They'll stand out from a cafe that is just a trading company buying and selling goods." Meow is so well disposed to those making and doing that he's happy to cut them a bit of slack.

"If they're good, I will definitely go back," he says. "But even if they're not so good I'll give them another chance because they deserve it more than a commercial cafe."

Standing out from run-of-the-mill cafes was a big motivation when Simone Moss and Lyn Brown conceived of Threefold in Flinders Lane. "We looked around the CBD and saw how samesame most of the food was," says Moss. "We decided from the outset to make everything we could from scratch." Threefold proudly serves its own beetroot-cured hot-smoked trout, makes a different pasta each week, and bakes three specialty breads including a parmesan bread that becomes the soldiers for boiled eggs. All the mayonnaises, preserves and relishes are made at Threefold, including truckloads of parsley mayo for their much-loved chicken, rocket and mayonnaise sandwich. Salads and sweets are displayed on a countertop in bounteous, generous fashion.

"Everything looks homemade and thoughtful and heartfelt," says Moss. "We've had so many people say they can feel the love in our food."

Cath Sheahan opened Miss Frank in Camberwell in August to enable customers to have a "homemade" experience without cooking themselves. That means jams, chutneys and sauces eaten with the cafe's toast, sandwiches and pastries are available to take home in jars. "Not everyone can come to the cafe every week," she says. "If you enjoy our beautiful jam or beetroot relish, how nice to have a jar of it at home as well."

There's a feel-good factor on both sides of the cash register. "People are really pleased and surprised to hear
that we've made it, and even more so that they can have some to take home."

Pope Joan's Matt Wilkinson balances a we-made-it approach with a business owner's pragmatism. His East Brunswick team make their own gluten-free bread, baked beans, chutneys and sauces but he draws the line at smoking, curing and sausage making. "In an ideal world I'd love to make my own sausages but to make 40  kilograms a week would be an absolute pain in the arse," he says. "I also know that my supplier, Pacdon Park, can consistently make better sausages than I can." It's the same story with bacon. "We go through 65 kilograms a week," he says. "I can't find the space to make that."

There are some things he feels compelled to make in-house such as baked beans but he also sees more  outsourcing on the horizon, especially since wage costs have crept to 42 per cent of gross profit. "Does it really
matter if one of my guys has sat there and chopped a 20-kilo bag of potatoes each day versus me buying in
potatoes prepared to my specifications?" he ponders. "It doesn't feel as warm and cosy but if it means that staff members concentrate on learning a proper skill like filleting fish maybe that's a better outcome."

Of all the cafes profiled above, only the Northcote Bakeshop bakes all its bread. For most, bulk bread is simply a bridge too far in terms of space, time and labour costs. Well beyond that bridge is Silo, in city laneway Hardware Street.

Owned by environmental envelope-pusher Joost Bakker, Silo not only bakes its bread but mills its flour too. The tiny cafe seats just 20 people but manages to incorporate two 25-kilogram silos, one for wheat and one for the oat groats that are rolled daily for porridge and slices. "We set a new standard for doing things from scratch," says chef Douglas McMaster. The wheat is ground according to use (fine for pastries, coarser for bread). McMaster makes three types of bread using one of two sourdough cultures, both lovingly named: one is Leroy, the other is Mother of Silo. Cultured cream is churned to make butter. Vinegar is brewed at the cafe. Soy beans are even pulped to make soy milk.

"Some people say we're nuts," laughs McMaster. "I'm not going to lie: it's very hard and stressful. We have to be like marines. We come in every day at 5am and we don't have one minute to spare."

Silo's environmental philosophy extends to butchering whole carcasses, using lesser-loved meats such as mutton, making the most of vegetable off-cuts and foraging sea succulents.

Scraps are dehydrated on site, transported to Bakker's farm where they're used as compost to grow, for example, the rhubarb that's then cooked in the cafe.

Everything learned here will be rolled out at a larger cafe slated for March. "Doing it for 100 people is only a little bit harder than doing it for 20 people but it should be five times as profitable," says McMaster.

The pay-off is immense. "I might never be considered one of the best chefs in the world but I know within myself that I'm doing things properly," he says. "I'm baking, roasting, making, butchering and I'm doing it with sustainable produce. There's incredible satisfaction there."

Source: the (melbourne) magazine. For more from the (melbourne) magazine visit themelbournemag.com or follow on Twitter @themelbournemag.