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Serving Up Bush Tucker and Turning Around Young Lives

6 March 2019 at 8:43 am
Maggie Coggan
Charcoal Lane, a social enterprise of Mission Australia, is shaking up Melbourne’s food scene with its native bush tucker menu. But the young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander chefs and waitstaff have a story of their own to tell, writes Maggie Coggan, in this month’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.   

Maggie Coggan | 6 March 2019 at 8:43 am


Serving Up Bush Tucker and Turning Around Young Lives
6 March 2019 at 8:43 am

Charcoal Lane, a social enterprise of Mission Australia, is shaking up Melbourne’s food scene with its native bush tucker menu. But the young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander chefs and waitstaff have a story of their own to tell, writes Maggie Coggan, in this month’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.   

Walking down the buzzing Gertrude Street, in inner-city Melbourne, full of shops, bars and restaurants, you might think Charcoal Lane is just another place to have a quality meal.  

But housed in the former Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, the restaurant is aiming to reflect and connect with the culture of the Wurundjeri People, which runs deep along Gertrude Street. Their menu features over 50 native bush ingredients, like emu, wild boar, wattleseed and lemon myrtle.  

With youth unemployment rates around three times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the restaurant is also fighting Indigenous workforce exclusion through a six month training program, teaching students back, and front of house skills, and giving them a leg up into a future career.

But the program goes way beyond your average hospitality traineeship. Troy Crellin, Charcoal Lane’s social enterprise manager, tells Pro Bono News it’s also about providing a non-judgemental support network, helping students overcome personal challenges.

“From our last intake, 95 per cent of the students had no access to ID, 90 per cent had unaddressed health issues including diabetes and mental health issues, and many required housing support,” Crellin says.  

Both Crellin and a full-time social worker do everything from attend court hearings, housing support meetings or doctor appointments – but only when the students ask them to.

“We’re trying to develop those life admin days where students can tell us when they want these interventions to take place,” he says.  

Crellin also says helping the students understand how to navigate service providers such as housing or health, is a massive part of setting them up for independence.    

“Becoming service literate by the end of the program and knowing what support does what, really goes a long way,” he says.

“It’s that whole thing of putting someone in a house, but not telling them how to pay a bill or how to set up an energy account, which we want to avoid.”

Waitstaff in training

Darlene is a current student of the program, and at 25 is the oldest person in her intake.   

“They all call me Aunty Darlene because I’ve experienced a lot in the housing system. I’ve been on the drug and alcohol path… pretty much everything except being locked up in jail,” Darlene tells Pro Bono News.

While she first undertook the program back in 2008, it wasn’t the right time and she had to drop out. But this time round, she’s confident she’ll stick it out.        

“I did start the program but it just wasn’t the right time for me… back then, I wasn’t very sociable at all. I was very nervous and embarrassed about having intellectual and [self-esteem] problems that made me be quiet,” she says.

“But this time round, it’s opened me up a bit more and I’m finding out more and more about who I am as a person.”

She puts it down to the emotional support received through the program.

“It’s having those hands and shoulders to comfort you, and knowing that it’s okay to be yourself,” she says.  

“Everyone is here for their own journey, and having those supports means there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

She says having other students who have been through similar experiences as part of the support network was really important.

“Everyone’s been through their own crap, and everyone relates to stuff on their own terms, but we are all familiar with those problems and everyone is definitely there for one another,” she adds.

While each student comes in with different levels of connection to culture, Crellin says that by working with them, and serving up the native bush foods, that connection can become stronger.

“Some of our young people are more culturally connected than others, as some have grown up in residential care, and been disconnected their entire life,” he says.  

“But it’s about everyone getting to a point of connection.”

He also says it’s about showing them skills they can then take and use in their careers.

“Some young people may have cooked using traditional methods, but a lot of that is in the ground and we’re in a restaurant setting, so we’re trying to look at utilising native ingredients in a modern setting,” he says.  

“That’s something our students are very attracted to, because it’s asking that question of where does culture fit in a modern setting.”

Inside Charcoal Lane

Crellin says watching this come to life in past students, reminds him why he’s in the job.  

“One of our young people ended up working for the number one chef in the world Rene Redzepi’s Australian pop-up restaurant, which was also based around native food, and he was putting up $500 plates of food,” he says.  

“He was enriched from that strengthening and connection to culture, and now works with young people helping them to gain that connection to culture in another organisation.   

 “It’s about young people sharing the knowledge they gain from our environment, and then spilling outside of our space and educating the public as well… it’s a generation of young people who are sharing what they are learning as well.”

Darlene says one of the reasons she was drawn to Charcoal Lane was its use of bush foods.  

“The chefs go really into detail with all of it, whether it be the citrus, the succulents, the spices, it’s really great,” she says.  

“I’m glad that I’m learning about it, because if in my own adventures, or if I go travelling, I can identify the foods myself.”  

Crellin also believes there’s an appetite for new and interesting native flavours.

“Five years ago, we’d have had a steak on the menu, with native ingredients on the side. These days I doubt we could even sell a steak, because people are coming in for emu and kangaroo, which shows you there is an appetite for native ingredients, and for trying new things,” he says.  

While he thinks Australian employers aren’t quite there in terms of understanding cultural needs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the conversation is starting to happen, and non-Indigenous people need to sit down and listen.      

“I think more people are aware of Indigenous issues and culture than ever before, but there’s a certain point where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have assimilated enough, and it’s about the community listening now,” he explains.  

“It’s about now partnering with Aboriginal community to work out the next step. I wouldn’t walk into anyone’s environment and disregard their religion, or beliefs, so why should that happen for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person.”

Darlene also has big hopes, and after graduating from Charcoal Lane and getting her Certificate two and three in hospitality, would one day like to be her own boss.   

“My life goal really is to open up my own little restaurant, and to have my own job title as a chef,” she says.

She also knows that if she gets into trouble, she can call back into Charcoal Lane for help.

“Whatever help I need, I know I can come and ask for it, so I’ll be sure to come back and annoy them lots.”

On the future of the enterprise, Crellin says the team are focusing energy into learning from past and current students to help shape programs, and make them as effective as possible.

“We have a graduate students advisory board, that helps to inform us of best practice around our programs,” he says.

“During youth week, we’re also looking at our students taking over the restaurant for a week, and looking at another way of running, whether that’s a block party or something along those lines. We’re letting the students take control of what that week looks like.”

With the enterprise turning 10 this year, there is a lot to celebrate. They have a 70 per cent success rate of positive outcomes with their students – moving off welfare, and into jobs or education.

Crellin says this landmark will mean a big party, and possibly booking out the Melbourne Cricket Ground to fit everyone in.  

“There will be 250 current and ex-students turning up with their families… tell me which venue is big enough for that!”

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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