Restaurant News

Fenton Food & Wine, a community-focused farm-to-table café and restaurant, opens in Melbourne

The meat comes from the family livestock farm and the produce comes from a plot of land the owners are learning to harvest. This neighbourhood bistro is out to prove that sustainable eating doesn’t have to be a special occasion.

By Callum McDermott
Fenton's dining room.
"Growing up in Zimbabwe, in collective communities, everyone helped each other out – you shared a lot, you worked together a lot, and that's how you got through any situation," says Nesbert Kagonda, co-owner of Fenton Food & Wine, in Melbourne's Carlton.
"Then, coming here, it's a very individualistic culture, but there seems to be a real need and desire to connect and gravitate towards a community."
In 2020, when Melbourne entered its first pandemic lockdown, Kagonda and partner Ruby Clark created that community via their café, Tanaka, a few doors down from what is now Fenton.
Tanaka was my favourite café. Then, over the course of a few months, it turned into my favourite grocer. Every morning, on my way to a locked-down takeaway coffee, I'd notice changes: fresh eggs for sale, some home-made sausages; a couple of produce boxes; then a couple more. The shelves behind the coffee machines went from stocking coffee beans and pour-over kettles to bearing rice, pastas, grains and spices. The fridges filled up with milk; palettes of vegetables from the market became permanent décor.
Nesbert Kagonda. Photo: Esin Ustundag
For that lockdown, and all of Melbourne's subsequent ones, Tanaka became a community hub: selling meat, vegetables and other basics – and still doing great coffees and sandwiches. During those lockdowns Kagonda and Clark provided food relief to nearby community housing in Carlton and donated cooked meals for the YMCA to distribute. They even started a weekly running club.
"Staying together as a community was really cool, in that time of crisis, going in and out of lockdowns," says Kagonda. "We started building a reputation for doing a lot of food relief and community work."
"And we sort of realised that the more you give back and connect with people, the more support you get from your neighbourhood," Kagonda says. "If someone cares about you because your value system overlaps, then they'll always come back and support you – and that's the only way we know how to do business now."
Which brings us to Fenton, their new venture. It's a farm-to-table café and restaurant that gets its meat from Kagonda's parents' cattle farm in South Gippsland and takes nearly all of its produce from an acreage on a farm in Clarkefield, just out of Melbourne, called Fenton Farm.
Breakfast dishes at Fenton. Photo: Esin Ustundag
Kagonda and Clark have spent the last year teaching themselves how to farm on their garden beds at Fenton Farm, which they use in exchange for upkeep of the farm grounds. Friends, staff, café regulars and other locals often take the trip up with them to help out.
"It was enough to give it a good go and see if we were any good at [farming], and so far so good," Kagonda says.
They've even started growing for other Melbourne venues: Manzé, in North Melbourne, grows some of its food in Kagonda and Clark's garden beds. Eventually, they were beginning to harvest more than they could sell, consume or give away. At the same time, some premises a few doors up from Tanaka became available. The pair, along with co-owner Luke Schuldt, decided to open a restaurant. A space for celebrating and showcasing the community they've built and the relationships they've formed over the last couple of years.
"Community is so important because the only successful way to do food sustainability is to work together," says Kagonda. "Because it's so hard to achieve any sort of sustainability when you're disconnected from your neighbours and the people around you."
The dining room facing towards Rathdowne Street. Photo: Esin Ustundag
Farm-to-table restaurant concepts are often big, ambitious special occasion fine diners. Typically on a vast estate surrounded by farmland. They require considerable infrastructure and are often either prohibitively expensive or too out-of-the-way for day-to-day dining. Fenton wants to change that.
"We're trying to make that farm-to-table approach an accessible one," Kagonda says. "We take our chefs, we pick the produce on Wednesday, bring it to the shop, wash it, prep it, write a menu that Wednesday night – and that becomes dinner on Friday and breakfast on the weekend," Kagonda says.
Head chef Lubna Bahashwan has spent time in the kitchens at some of Melbourne's most popular cafes. She writes creative and nimble dinner menus that make the most of fluctuating food availability, seasonality and Fenton's limited kitchen equipment. Although Bahashwan's cooking often channels her Singaporean upbringing, and Yemeni-Japanese heritage, there's no specific adherence to any one cuisine or culture here. What dishes appear on the menu are all a factor of what ingredients are on hand that day.
Dinner might start with Pacific oysters in a simple mignonette, followed by focaccia with house-dip, labneh and pickles; before moving on to shareable entrees and mains such as charred broccolini with almond crumb, octopus with beetroot and couscous, and beef stroganoff pasta. At breakfast, bestsellers include fried eggs with chakalaka relish and herb labneh; farm greens with almond feta on sourdough; and a big breakfast with smoked sausage, roast tomato and a potato rosti.
It's all set within a modest but warm space fitted out by Schuldt. It's filled with recycled materials, from the timber furnishing throughout to the reclaimed barn doors on the walls.
Fenton is the culmination of a project that started in those early months of 2020, but it's also the start of a new chapter. It's proof that exciting things can happen when talented and resourceful people get a chance to do what they're passionate about.
Fenton
158 Rathdowne St, Carlton, Vic
Open for dinner Friday, breakfast and lunch Saturday and Sunday
@fentonfoodandwine
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