A CORNERSMITH DINNER COLLABORATION OF BY-PRODUCTS + LITTLE WASTAGE
STORY BY CLEO BRAITHWAITE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS CHEN
How did the lamb cross the road? That’s not the start of a joke, but a question of logistics. It’s Thursday afternoon and the lamb in question has been roasting on a spit for four hours at Cornersmith Cafe before needing to be delivered to the newly opened Cornersmith Picklery across the road and a few blocks up. One of many components to be served at a dinner for staff and suppliers, the lamb is carried, slung between shoulders medieval style, in a procession probably not often seen by the peak-hour traffic headed up Illawarra Road, Marrickville.
Our menu for the night has been put together by chef Sabine Spindler, around a central theme of no-waste. Much of the produce to be used had been bound for the rubbish bin, or was a by-product of another process or part of the business. They also drew on the solid relationships they have with suppliers, trading goods by way of a barter system that has been a big part of their successful model.
The theme of the dinner is a fairly apt representation of Cornersmith’s ethos. Alex Elliott-Howery and James Grant opened the cafe on Illawarra Road in late 2011, after realising, “what we do at home we could do in a business”. Alex calls it “making thoughtful decisions”; sourcing local produce, supporting local growers, only using ethically-reared meats, maximising the use of by-products and minimising waste. Desirable practices in an age of food miles, live exports, and factory farming, complemented by Alex’s enthusiasm for pickling and preserving and James’s relaxed front-of-house charm. These defining features of the business made their presence felt early on, when James was determined to have a cheese and pickle sandwich on the menu at a time of year when neither cucumbers or zucchinis were in season for pickling. Luckily in Marrickville “everyone has a garden”, so James and Alex put out a call for chokos. The community responded, with enthusiasm as it turned out, and soon they were flooded with chokos. And soon after, serving up a mean cheese & pickle.
Desirable practices in an age of food miles, live exports, and factory farming…
The pickling arm of the business has been a huge success. Vast quantities of the pickles, along with various jams, chutneys and other condiments, called for a commercial kitchen with capabilities beyond the one-burner stove at the cafe. In addition to this they had started running workshops to share some of their collective skills, including employee Kristen Allan’s fresh cheese making. Another premises was needed to house it all; one that could double as a shopfront stocking goods from some of their favourite producers and suppliers. When a site became available, a former butcher’s shop on another corner further up the road, Cornersmith Picklery was born.
Along the way they have gathered, not so much a team of employees, as a family made up of individuals who all contribute to what makes Cornersmith special. And the involvement from staff members and suppliers can be felt as soon as the dinner gets underway. Small jars of almonds are offered around that have been soaked in whey, a by-product of Kristen’s cheese making, then roasted. Young Henry’s cider (procured in exchange for pickled brussel sprouts), and homebrew made by dishie Lucien Alperstein is served alongside crackers made from whey and the starch that’s a by-product of the brewing process.
As more and more dishes appear on the central island of the picklery, Alex climbs a ladder to make a speech thanking the staff – the “unsung heroes” – and emphasises how valued they are. In an industry that can be dominated by managers and owners with a ‘you can’t get good help’ attitude, Cornersmith sticks out like a sore thumb. “I feel a bit emotional because you’re all so wonderful”, Alex gushes from the second step of the ladder, “Everyone specialises in their little thing – everyone is amazing!”
Next, Sabine, the quietly-achieving star of the dinner, is given the floor to explain the menu: the whole lamb from Feather & Bone, the Brickfields bread leftover from the cafe that day, leftover asparagus that didn’t sell in the picklery, a huge round of cultured butter donated by Pepe Saya in neighbouring Tempe, surplus chutneys and pickles. Another team member, Stephannie Lui, has made a thyme and whey cake with lemon curd, and there will be ice-cream made with the saved leftover ends of pumpkin loaves and a caramel made from whey. But the greatest haul comes from their fruit and veg supplier Shane Roberts, who has salvaged boxes of produce destined for the rubbish pile because it’s cheaper for sellers to throw them out than it is to pay someone to sort through yellowing leaves and sprouting potatoes. “It’s really heartbreaking”, says Sabine.
Acknowledging first where your food came from is a pleasing kind of secular
way of saying grace
Acknowledging first where your food came from is a pleasing kind of secular way of saying grace. Perhaps if it was a custom, people would more commonly practise “making thoughtful decisions” about their meals. On this night, the produce that was deemed only worthy of rotting out the back of the Flemington markets is now a feast of colourful platters: asparagus and bread salad with Kristen’s ricotta, raw carrot with seeds and sprouts, kale chips, roasted tomatoes and eggplants. And with sincere thanks given, everyone digs in.
There are chairs, but cross-legged on the floor seems just as good
Two staff members tear a slice of bread between them like a christmas cracker, someone else jokes about the origin of their meal – “This food is rubbish!” There is cutlery, but many happily eat with their hands. There are chairs, but cross-legged on the floor seems just as good. After the plates have been stacked in the dishwasher, everyone takes it in turns to churn the ice-cream by hand.
From the street, the corner shop emits a bright glow. Like the surplus choko that saves a cheese and pickle sandwich, or discarded vegetables that end up as dinner, the old butcher’s shop has begun its new life as Cornersmith Picklery.
The Cornersmith Picklery is located at 441 Illawarra Road, Marrickville.