Melbourne: Taste of success

By Pam Neville

In a city famed for its dining, one Kiwi is creating something unique, writes Pam Neville.

Charcoal Lane, a trendy restaurant and successful social enterprise in Melbourne. Photo / Pam Neville
Charcoal Lane, a trendy restaurant and successful social enterprise in Melbourne. Photo / Pam Neville

It's like the Salvation Army running The French Cafe or Logan Brown. Here is an upmarket restaurant competing with the best in town - and glowingly reviewed by food critics - yet its prime purpose is to help at-risk and unemployable youngsters.

Charcoal Lane, in Melbourne's trendy Gertrude St, is run by Mission Australia - one of the largest community organisations in the country - and is used as a rescue station and training ground for disadvantaged, ill-educated and sometimes drug-addicted Aboriginal youths.

The restaurant is overtly Australian, with a strong Aboriginal influence in the food and decor. Try emu mousse, wallaby prosciutto, yam fritters with bush tomato chutney, kangaroo fillet and, of course, all the barramundi, yabbies, spanner crab and other distinctly local seafood you can think of.

The staff are experienced professionals, among them the New Zealand-raised lynchpin of the operation, restaurant manager Lucy Chambers.

Intermingling with these professionals, and being trained in a more formal setting upstairs, are 18 teens and young adults who have been referred from social services, such as drug and alcohol abuse agencies or the Aboriginal Health Service.

The students have 18 months to clean themselves up, solve their problems, and learn enough to get a job, but some succeed much earlier.

"We have one boy out on work experience at the moment, and I doubt he will come back because he's about to be offered a fulltime job," says Chambers.

"In the two years we've been going, most of the trainees have been indigenous, but the current intake of 12 students includes an Iranian and an Iraqi who have come to Australia as refugees."

There's nothing like Charcoal Lane in New Zealand, but Chambers wishes there was.

"It's an operation that would translate well to New Zealand," says the young Scottish-born woman who grew up in Christchurch.

She came to Melbourne after a 10-year career managing restaurants in London, looking for "something more" in her next job.

"It's very satisfying to see students go from here to long-term employment."

Charcoal Lane is a social enterprise, a concept we are not unfamiliar with in New Zealand, although we don't have a Charcoal Lane.

It's a do-gooders' business, if you like, with the focus on helping the disadvantaged rather than turning a profit.

This social enterprise is in a building which looks like a traditional commercial premises. The old bluestone building was built as a bank, but for many years housed the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service.

The market and lane behind the building was a gathering place where people came to socialise and camp out. Today, the area is gentrified. Inside Charcoal Lane, corporates, foodies and the fashion-conscious sample Aboriginal flavours and native ingredients.

Bookings are essential.


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