Fenton Food and Wine: an idea that flourished
Cooking only with what is in season provides peak tastes and supports the environment.
The notion of seasonal farm-grown produce cooked and taken to the table to share with the community is what drives Nesbert Kagonda and business partner Ruby Clark.
They present their food and hospitality philosophy as co-owners of Fenton Food and Wine in Rathdowne St, Carlton.
It has been a long journey that has grown through the generosity of other people’s skills and the couple’s never-ending persistence.
Since a tough start in 2019 when COVID’s impact played havoc with people’s lives and businesses, the duo persevered with what Mr Kagonda refers to as the “cool idea” of farm to table.
“Learning where the food comes from creates a point of difference for us,” Mr Kagonda said.
Two people with a concept but no experience in farming or recipe creation, let alone cooking skills, have shown constant tenacity to bring their idea successfully to market.
In their first stage, they were true beginners who created a local grocery shop further down Rathdowne St from the current location, providing local customers with produce from Mr Kagonda’s father’s farm in South Gippsland.
A year ago, they took over a small section of a large farm in Clarkefield, around 40 kilometres north-west of Melbourne.
It was close enough to the city that members of their community helped and learned how to plant and nurture food.
Still, on their steep learning curve, they planted seedlings, and while not all of them grew, they harvested enough to cook in the space they created to share food with the locals.
“We made it a reality, and it was starting to get exciting,” he said. “We are still trying to work on how to grow enough food to meet our needs consistently.”
There was an abundance in autumn, but when winter arrived, they struggled.
They gave no thought to preserving some autumn bounty to help them through winter.
Forming partnerships with other hospitality venues was another option they undertook.
Manze, a Mauritian restaurant in North Melbourne, has joined in the farming in Clarkefield, and it’s growing tomatoes with Carlton’s Heartattack and Vine European-style café.
“Having other groups sharing the load is making our idea more realistic,” Mr Kagonda said.
Without the opportunity they were given by the Clarkefield farm owners, their initiative may not have come to fruition.
“We are learning and growing, and this reminds us of where we came from and where we are going,” he said.
The original ideas of how to use the produce to create meals people would enjoy rests on the shoulders of their first chef Yemenite Lubna Bahashwan.
“We would go to the farm with Lubna and come up with recipe ideas from the garden.”
At the time, they were unafraid of failure, which gave them knowledge of what did not work.
An African influence runs through the menu, with traditional and experimental spice blends frequently used, paying homage to Lubna’s background and Mr Kagonda’s early life in Zimbabwe.
“It reminds us of where we came from,” he said.
Chakalaka, a South African vegetable relish, usually spicy and traditionally served with bread, stews, or curries, makes a regular appearance on the menu.
Amagwinya, translated in English as “fat cake”, is a tasty doughnut snack eaten by South Africans, Ghanaians and people from Zimbabwe that often features on Fenton’s harvest dinner menu weekly from Thursday to Saturday 6pm to 11pm.
The food is partnered with a short and sharp wine list with most wines from Victoria.
Mr Kagonda said most of their customers were locals making up 90 per cent of people who regularly dined with them.
“For me, familiarity with our customers is important; it’s great to greet people by name and share our hospitality as if we are eating with our family.” •
For more information: fentonfoodandwine.com