CONVERSATION WITH A CHEF | GREG HAMPTON, CHARCOAL LANE
By Jo Rittey
Greg Hampton is passionate about cooking with native ingredients from Australia’s own backyard. He also loves sharing his knowledge with others. Enter Charcoal Lane, Fitzroy’s thriving social enterprise restaurant offering a fine dining menu made up of of ancient and arcane Indigenous nuts, fruits, meats and sea creatures.
The feel-good fine dining offered at Charcoal Lane unites Aboriginal heritage with gastronomy, all while providing a supported, hands-on Mission Australia traineeship program for young Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander aspiring chefs and hospitality stars.
Hi Greg. I thought we might start with the fact that you’ve been cooking for 20 years and I wondered what made you want to become a chef.
It’s actually more like 30 years.
Yeah. I started pretty much straight from high school. I did a four-year apprenticeship in a hotel in Hobart, an old hotel that was about 180 years old. As soon as I’d done my time I went straight to the tropics. I worked in the Whitsundays for a year; I was the sous chef on an island there. Then I went to Orpheus Island up off the coast of Townsville and I was sous chef there for a year.
What’s it like cooking on an island? It’s an interesting choice for a young chef.
Oh I couldn’t wait to get away from the cold weather and start travelling. I looked at travel brochures and thought where do I want to go, where can I learn about food? I thought North Queensland would be awesome so I just got a job and left. Within a couple of weeks I was gone.
The islands are a different world altogether. The first one I was on, ever night was a Saturday night, it was busy and a lot of staff. You work with people, you live with people, you want to go somewhere to eat a meal, they’re there. You want to have a drink somewhere, they’re there. You can’t escape work. The second island was a lot more expensive and a lot smaller and we would do a degustation every day. So I was writing a menu for lunch which was a couple of courses and then dinner was seven courses. That was every day and we used to get supplies once every two weeks on a barge. At that stage I was 20, so that was a pretty sharp learning curve for me.
I loved it. It was really, really good. Then I thought I might go back to hotels so I went to the Sheraton in Townsville, the casino there and worked in banqueting and fine dining there. I did a year there then I got the bug again and went to Cairns. I went to a resort in Cairns and they put me in fine dining and I did two years with them. During that time I met my wife to be and we ended up quitting our jobs and we backpacked for three or four months and we ended up in Perth. I went to the Esplanade Hotel in Fremantle for a year and then I went to work for an Italian family at a place called Chianti on Collins where I did two years. We had a son and we were there by ourselves. I was working long hours and my wife was on her own so we thought we’d come back to Melbourne, because she’s from here.
We came to Melbourne and I went to a restaurant on Little Bourke Street called Red Ochre, which was a native food restaurant.
Ok. Had you been cooking native food at the other places?
I initially started when I was in Cairns. I met a gentleman by the name of Vic Cherikoff. He is a scientist. He and another guy called Andrew Fielke came together in the early eighties and they were the first people to start commercially producing the food and using it. They split up. Vic went into production and Andrew opened restaurants so I ended up working for Andrew at Red Ochre which unfortunately was heavily in debt when I arrived. I left after about a year and they closed the doors a couple of months after that. At this point I had a young family and thought it was time to settle down and buy a house and all the rest of it. I went to a restaurant in Balwyn called Colombo’s, which was a 400-seater. I was the head chef there. Within a couple of years it had been renovated and became a thousand seater.
A thousand seats? In Balwyn? How do you manage numbers like that?
I was the head Chef there for 10 years. It’s a different world. Because there was a thousand seater restaurant, plus there was delivery, so people could ring up and order a pasta or risotto or steak or fish. There was a takeaway section as well so if one section wasn’t busy, another one always was and if they were all busy, it was mayhem. We would have 100 people booked and we’d do 1200 people. Plus the takeaway and delivery.
Ten years is a long time to be doing that kind of thing.
My body hasn’t recovered and that’s a long time ago now. During that time, I settled down and worked hard and paid off a house in a few years. It was worth it because I walked away with something like that.
While I was doing that I wanted to keep my interest going with native food, because that was what I wanted to do. So I went back to school and I got a diploma in horticulture to increase my knowledge about native food and plants and all that. Once I decided to leave Colombo’s, I went to Federation Square and started working at a restaurant called Tjanabi, which was a native food restaurant. I did two years with them and then I decided to go out to the Yarra Valley and I was employed by the Healesville Hotel. My job was to run Healesville Sanctuary for them. So I did all the food for the zoo plus I worked in the hotel a few nights a week. I also started teaching at William Angliss. I designed a course for them on native foods. So I was doing short courses fro them, I was working at the hotel three nights a week and I was doing a full time job at the Sanctuary as well.
So what you’re cooking, it’s not really bush tucker, is it?
Well it is.
But it’s a bit fancier?
I can take you into the kitchen and show you all the stuff if you want to.
That would be good.
I did my stint at the Sanctuary and then the job came up here (Charcoal Lane) and I started working for Mission Australia here. I’ve been here just on three years now. So that’s a long time.
It is a long time. You have a good memory for all the places. The Mission is really all about providing opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders?
Yes. We take on underprivileged indigenous people and we train them in front of house and back of house. They do Certificates 1, 2 and 3. Then at the end of them we look for pathways for them for full time employment. The trainees will do their stint in the kitchen with me, which is Certificate 3 and takes about 18 months. It’s different in each case, but when and they feel they are ready we send them off. We work in partnership with Accor Hotels as well, so that’s Sofitel, the Pullman, Novotel. Quite a lot of them end up working in those hotels, which is cool.
That is cool. How does it work for them? Not that I want to differentiate, but a couple of the chefs I’ve spoken to have said the big problem is getting young people into the industry because they don’t want to do the hours and it’s such hard work and they want to be having fun with their friends. Is that the same for the young people you work with?
That’s normal in the normal world. For me, it’s a lot worse. We have to understand that some of the people we are working with are the first in their families to have worked. So they’ve come from backgrounds where they’re not used to working and it’s not normal to work. There are a lot of issues we have to deal with. That’s not something I really have to take on board or try to deal with as such because there are people here who deal with that; the program manager, their support worker. I try and deal with a certain amount of it, but I’m not a social worker or psychiatrist. I’m trying to run a business and teach people at the same time. That’s what I have to focus on.
Are they receptive to you teaching them about what was traditionally their food?
That’s the secret for me. Because most of them don’t know what these foods are. So if I show them something that’s part of their heritage, that tastes pretty cool and looks great, all of a sudden they think it’s good and get a sense of pride in their own culture. And if I can back that up with telling them where things are grown and how to find them, then it validates what I’m talking about. I don’t pretend to be aboriginal, I’m not.
What was it that drew you to those ingredients?
Because of where I’m from and because I love the country and the more I see of the country, I love it, and the more I realise I don’t know as much about it as I think I do. Every time I go out into the bush I realise what I don’t know. It drives me to learn more and more. And because I love cooking and the fact that I can match the two together. I have a background in my apprenticeship from European people and had it driven into me that the French way is the only way to do it, that does irk me and it makes me want to prove them wrong and show them that there is Australian food.
What are some examples of the products and ingredients you like to use?
It’s probably better if I show you once we’ve finished, but we concentrate on rainforest herbs a lot. I use things like lemon myrtle, aniseed myrtle, cinnamon myrtle, the native peppers; there are quite a few native peppers that we use. We use a lot of plants from the coastal areas, succulents and so on. We use a lot of fruit from the rainforest as well. We get quite a bit of stuff from the arid parts of the country; fruits in particular. We concentrate on game meat, like emu, wallaby and every now and then I use feral animals as well, like wild boar or rabbit, because it’s a way of talking about it to the kids. It’s meat we should be using. It’s meat that shouldn’t be here. We use a lot of local seafood. We use a lot of native nuts as well.
Do you use insects?
No I don’t.
Did they eat insects traditionally?
Yeah they did. I concentrate on the things I can get regularly and I know they’re going to be good quality. I’ve been using a lot of my suppliers for 15 years or so now. When I first started, it was a bit hit and miss. If it was raining, they wouldn’t go out and pick it or if they’d had a big night the night before they wouldn’t go out and pick it. Now it’s different and there are new things coming in all the time. The next stage for the industry is looking at vegetables. There are a lot of vegetables that have been discovered. We would like to use more but it’s not always that easy. Supply is still an issue for some things. It’s not all that straightforward. Some of the plants don’t produce fruit every year. There’s one tree, for example, a nut tree, that doesn’t mature until it’s 100 years old and then you only get the nuts every seven years. So to try and get an industry up and running, it’s not easy. Rainfall isn’t always the same every year, so things don’t fruit.
I quite like that though because I think that’s how the aborigines would have eaten; seasonally and what’s available.
Oh of course. I’d love to be able to just create menus like that, but I can’t. I need to know I can get the products I need.
Does Victoria produce anything you can use?
I do get quite a bit of stuff from Victoria. There are people in Gippsland who I have been using for a number of years. They produce pepper, strawberry gum, native spinach, river mint and a few other things. Most of my stuff is from interstate.
How often do you change the menu?
I try and change it every three months. It’s not always that easy due to staff and lack of them. Circumstances change so quickly; never a dull moment. Ideally I’d do it every couple of months but it doesn’t work that way.
You’ve never really chosen easy situations, have you?
I knew what I was in for when I came here and I always had in the back of my mind that I would produce the best possible food I could but it has to be practical. A lot of the time I might be in there by myself. When people do come into work and they are focused, then it’s really good.
Does everything on your menu feature native ingredients?
Yeah. I try and create dishes that people are comfortable with and then just give them some native twists so they can try things. But we try and have things on there that are completely different. It’s too in your face otherwise. If people come in and they don’t know what the food is, they might hesitate to order anything. I go to restaurants too and get disappointed because I don’t know what a dish is going to look like.
One dish we have is a lamb shoulder. We poach it for 4 hours and it’s really tender and beautiful and then we caramelize it in the oven so it melts in your mouth and we serve it with a nice-flavoured mashed potato with saffron and pink pepper and some broad beans and then we put a native peach in the sauce. That’s a comfortable dish for most people to come here and have. Or if they want to be a bit experimental, they can have a nice piece of wallaby with some wild rosella flowers. You have to balance it out. People who have dabbled in these foods in the past have done it where it’s a token gesture and you don’t really taste it or there’s too much of it and people get intimidated by it. You have to find the balance and I know that.
A number of chefs have told me that you can’t cook for yourself, you have to cook for the diners.
You have to make money. So you have to cook for the diners or no one will want to eat it.
There’s authentic and then there’s realistic.
Definitely. And if you can’t accept that, you’ve got a head that’s a bit too big, haven’t you?
136 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
Tues – Saturday Lunch 12pm – 3pm, Dinner from 6pm
Jo Rittey is a freelance writer who wants to live in a world where apostrophes are used correctly and smiles are genuine. When she’s not roaming the streets of the northside in search of great food, she likes getting lost in beautiful films and having wildly enthusiastic discussions with chefs.