Wednesday, March 13, 2013

fifty-six threads Cafe - A Brunch of Cultures

I was invited to attend fifty-six threads' Melbourne Food and Wine Festival event, "A Brunch of Cultures", as a non-paying guest.  See end of post for full disclosure.


From the outside, my friend's Mazda was travelling at a sedate 50 kmh up Kensington Road, but inside she was fanging it.  Due to numerous babysitting stuff-ups, we thought we were going to be late for this epic five-course brunch, but as we approached I knew we were making good time.  "Turn here," I said when we got to Derby Street and a few seconds later, "Pull over there - here we are!"  She braked and looked around.  "Are you sure?"


fifty-six threads may have an unlikely location at the bottom of a Housing Commission block, but it's all part of the story behind this unique social enterprise.  It is run by AMES who provide humanitarian settlement services, English language teaching and work placement.  Their mission is "full participation for all in a cohesive and diverse society".  I liked them already, and I hadn't even tried their food yet!


In fact, I have had a long relationship with AMES.  My mum used to volunteer teaching English to migrants through their home tutor program and I started doing the same in my early 20s.  I still remember my first student, Thuy, who lived in the Richmond flats and who would make me awesome Vietnamese food after every lesson.  Over the ensuing years I had more lovely students from Sudan and Lebanon and somehow always managed to wrangle a delicious, home-cooked meal after every class.  What a scammer!


fifty-six threads has been open for just over 12 months.  It has been staffed and run like a regular business for this opening phase and now that good systems are in place, it's about to move into its next phase as a training ground for AMES clients including work experience, vocational training courses and work placement opportunities.  The cafe is also part of the larger Kensington redevelopment project which has seen new public and private homes built around the existing Commission flats in an attempt to integrate the estate both physically and socially into the surrounding area and create a vibrant, connected community.


I feel that food, coffee and restaurant culture are powerful tools that can be used for good.  Menus can set the bar for us at home by raising awareness of ethical, local produce.  The Cup of Excellence provides real incentives for Third World producers to produce stellar coffee, with accompanying monetary returns far above those which even Fair Trade certification would offer.  Cafes and restaurants can also give back to the community through not-for-profit or charitable initiatives such as at Kinfolk or training as through Scarf.  If you believe in an equitable, diverse Melbourne community, dining at fifty-six threads is putting your money where your mouth is.


Anyway, enough proselytising - onto the food!  Course number one was a gorgeous, warmed seasonal fig with creamy Greek yoghurt, pistachios and honey.  Just divine.  We then dove into a Middle Eastern mezze platter with really good olives, thick tangy labne, ful (mashed dried broad beans), pita, boiled egg and more.  Delicious and healthy!  Perhaps the hummus could have been more zesty, but if you thought I'm a coffee snob, I'm an even worse hummus one.


I loved this dish - an "Asian frittata" with snow pea shoots and sweet soy.  The eggy slice was silky and moreish, lovely with a quick swipe through the kecap manis-like sauce.  The snow pea shoots are so typical of that fantastic Asian tendency to use everything - not just the fruit, but the leaves, stalks and roots as well.  I've even seen chilli and melon leaves and stems for sale in Little Saigon - nothing is chucked out.


Last savoury course - a statuesque pork and fennel sausage and wickedly good bacon, both from venerable Carlton butcher Donati's.  They cuddled up next to a potato farl which I believe is Irish potato bread that has been fried - a bit like a giant potato cake!  I believe that fifty-six threads are moving to source all their meat from Donati's in the future.


AMES' first social enterprise was the Sorghum Sisters.  The "sisters" in question were a group of refugee women from the Horn of Africa who came up with their own catering business.  From these clever cookies came this selection of baklava, basbosa coconut slice, bikkies and honey-draped donuts. fifty-six threads use coffee from fellow social enterprise STREAT, also in Kensington.  My espresso was great, although I must say I popped in the week before and another short black then was really not good.  On that visit I didn't hear the tell-tale buzz of the grinder before the espresso was made.  I wonder if the grinder's hopper might have been full from a previous grind - to get the full flavour profile, coffee really needs to be extracted from beans ground to order, just seconds before pulling the shot.  Still, the short black this day was on the money.


I have such fond memories of working with AMES, and I'm happy to know they are still working hard to make the path of settlement a little easier.  This mesmerising image is called "New Life in Australia" and is by Nay Ta Gay Wah, an entrant in AMES' annual refugee fine art prize, Heartlands.  I encourage you to look through the past winners, whose stories are both heartbreaking and heartening.  fifty-six threads' name is inspired by the many threads of the community weaving their stories, skills and passions through the cafe.  I love this vision of Australia - a beautiful tapestry of talents and tales from all around the globe.

Fifty-Six Threads Cafe on Urbanspoon

fifty-six threads
56 Derby Street, Kensington
Phone:  9376 6885
Open:  Wed-Sun 7.30am-3.30pm

Disclosure:  AMES invited me and a guest to join the senior communications coordinator of AMES at AMES' 2013 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival event, "A Brunch of Cultures".  Attendance was not conditional on writing a subsequent post.  Neither AMES nor fifty-six threads have sought nor been given any editorial control of this post.


  1. We often take the kids to 56 threads then down to The Venny to play and bounce on the tramps.
    Its the kids favorite outing.

    1. Ooh! I have been eyeing off that Venny for such a long time but was never quite sure if it was functioning as it is closed every time we go past. "Risk-taking playground" - love it! Thanks for stopping by, Jan!

    2. Thanks Lauren. Love this site and your passion for food in the west.
      The Venny is one of only 5 free backyards and play space for kids and youth in Australia. Its been in Kensington since 1980.
      Its focus tends to be on kids living in hardship but it is also inclusive to the local community kids.
      I understand Berlin has 50 similar models alone in the city and the UK has hundreds. The Venny has a incredible eco building and playspace. They have chooks, a goat, a duck and a dog. Also arts, sports, vegetable gardens and a wonderful kitchen.Kids cook and share meals there. Be good to have a venny in every suburb i think. Footscray ? Thanks Jan

    3. Oops. Its open after school each day (3.30) and on weekends from 1 to 5pm to kids (5-16y olds) and youth. All opening other hours are for programs for kids living at risk.
      Thanks Jan

  2. Replies
    1. If you navigate over to their website Kristine, you can download the regular menu. The shakshuka is highly recommended!


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