Rival restaurants in Daylesford, central Victoria, have joined forces to create a new venture providing finish-at-home, three-course meals.
Trading under the name Co-Lab Kitchen, different chefs from six top restaurants cook one course each, but need to collaborate over the phone to make sure all the dishes work together. One team looks after Thursday service, the other team covers Saturday.
The initiative is a response to the COVID-19 regional Victoria lockdown, announced last Saturday at 11am for a 1pm closure.
"Two hours' warning!" says Liam Thornycroft, co-owner of Cliffy's Emporium cafe and Beppe Bar & Kitchen. "We were fully stocked with over $10,000 worth of perishable food that we had to find another way to move. We don't have food banks in town, and we can't throw it out."
When the lockdown began at 1pm chefs in kitchens across Daylesford started vacuum sealing perishable food and freezing what they could. Jodi Flockhart, owner of Sault Restaurant at nearby Sailors Falls, had just finished a "rapid but glorious" lunch service for the six local guests they could muster into the restaurant at short notice.
Dejected and deflated, Flockhart started reading through posts on a WhatsApp group for local restaurants.
"Every chef in town was in the same boat," she says. "Despite that deep blow, we all were discussing what we could do. We have chefs working at the top of their game in fine dining. We have to keep their skills honed – keep them kitchen-fit."
The group settled on Co-Lab Kitchen, a concept borrowed during the previous lockdown from a group of chefs in Bendigo. Thornycroft contacted local design studio Yellow Brick Road Agency on Monday, and by the next day Co-Lab Kitchen had a brand, logo and a retail website through which patrons could order meals.
Meanwhile, chefs from Beppe, Bistro Terroir and Frank and Connie's Kitchen in Hepburn Springs created a menu featuring gin-cured salmon with remoulade, lamb ribs and duck fat-roasted potatoes, and a rum baba with pistachio ganache.
Saturday's three-course collaboration between Kadota, Sault and Betel Boy restaurants included Angus beef tartare and pickled kohlrabi, barramundi with fermented cabbage and leeks, plus peanut butter parfait to finish.
While the limited-edition meals are available for pick-up in Daylesford, Thornycroft has also brought on local delivery drivers to help get the orders out.
Now queries are coming from other regional restaurants who want to make Co-Lab Kitchen work in their town.
Bernard Glaude, manager at Restaurant Lola in Ballarat, contacted the Daylesford group earlier this week.
"What they are doing is inspiring," says Glaude. "[Lockdown] is tough and will only get tougher, especially in regional Victoria. The way forward is for businesses to work together."
With the help of local food events producer Kate Davis from Plate Up Ballarat, Glaude has pulled together a group featuring some of Ballarat's best restaurants such as Mr Jones Dining, The Shared Table and Roy Hammond.
Ballarat's Co-Lab Kitchen meals will be on sale Monday for collection later in the week.
"This [initiative] is about a lot more than moving the food in our cool rooms," says Thornycroft. "It is about jobs for staff."
Regional hospitality has suffered while Melburnian patrons, who normally travel to the regions, are under extended lockdown.
Casual hospitality staff were already working reduced shifts before last Saturday's regional lockdown as businesses temporarily closed or limited hours.
"This is also about doing everything we can to stay afloat and keep our heads together in all this madness, so we are ready when the next snap opening happens," says Thornycroft. "You don't feel as alone when you're talking to other people who are trying to work out the same predicament."