UPDATE 2017: Blackboard has brought in the new year with a revamp and new menu items.
Following your dream can take sacrifice. For Nick Pearce, starting his first café meant selling his car, a difficult call to family to borrow some money, and he was on his way. Still a student at Bond University studying Business with an Entrepreneurship Major, Nick opened Blackboard, a coffee shop in Varsity Lakes.
“…impossibly young…preppy…Nick talks blends as a chef talks ingredients or a sommelier talks wine. He’s way too smart for school, with coffee wisdom way beyond his years, so it’s ironic really that he’s still a student!” That’s what we said about Nick then!
To begin with, it was all about coffee; drawing people in to know and understand different products, namely coffee. This is the coffee we source, this is where it’s from, and this is how we make it for you. Or so it seemed.
In reality, it was all part of a grander vision, a passionate mission to show people the best produce, to tell them where it came from, to take their hand and lead them forward to try different things, to extend their comfort zone, all in the name of food accountability and sustainability.
“Since I was young, the only books I read were cooking books. I loved food, not cafés, but there’s a freedom in cafés which allows you to draw inspiration from many sources, to follow whichever direction you choose.”
“I always knew that I wanted to open a full-blown restaurant, an all day eating house,” Nick Pearce told me recently, “but I started with coffee. We needed to build a team with passion and knowledge on the food front to be able to execute it. The same principles apply to all our produce, be it coffee or food: traceable single origin. We take the same approach across everything. It was just a natural progression that we went further with food.”
On the cusp of opening the restaurant for dinner trade, Nick and Chef Marc Kinvig (ex Takapuna Beach Café/ Hip Group manager) are talking food philosophy. It’s the ultimate combination: the restaurateur with vision, and the chef who has shadowed him across continents in search of a position, recognising their dovetailing values.
“We’re aiming to create a place for the community to come in and eat at any time (breakfast, lunch or dinner), a carefully prepared and executed meal. What draws people in is the passion.”
As we sit chatting in this open plan dining room, we can see the passion: from the chef through to staff who understand the care that goes into every dish, and from Nick himself, who knows that the little things count (such as the complimentary carbonated water served to all diners).
“We’re not using imported products, and we know where our produce comes from,” Nick tells me. “Did you know that 90% of the chickens and pigs in Australia are battery farmed? We work with producers and go and see how they work. For example, our egg man (from Lawler’s Lane near Byron Bay), who has Black Australorps, works in with a potato farmer. The chooks eat the weeds and fertilise the soil as they go, so the need for fertiliser and pesticides is eliminated by the two producers working together. We can tell you about this when you dine here – exactly where those eggs come from.”
“We get excited about the little things,” Marc pipes up. He’s nibbling from a small bowl of oats he’s hand rolled from Demeter Farm Mill groats, and I quickly learn about oxidisation in food (and the difference it makes to taste)!
“It’s not about a fancy dish on a plate, but about knowing that the ingredients are treated with care from conception to the plate we give you, the diner. Every day we get to celebrate something amazing. For example, Bahen & Co. Chocolate – it’s made out of two ingredients, cacao beans and cane sugar. Compare that to your average block!”
It’s this celebration of provenance, the small achievements of local producers, be it the food producer down the road or the wood turner who hand makes each of the restaurant’s pepper mills, that is thrilling. When we consider that the food in a typical shopping basket has travelled a staggering 70,000 kilometres (CERES study 2008) before it reaches our kitchen, a commitment to local farmers and producers makes sense. While food miles are not a sole indicator of ‘goodness’, if we buy local and reduce food miles, we do create jobs locally and are more likely to know more about the food we eat!
So when you get order a plate of fresh fruit for breakfast, you can be sure that it’s been chosen with care, that the Barambah yoghurt which accompanies it is the best organic produce they can source. From House-cured salmon to handmade labna, the emphasis is on top quality healthy meals using ingredients of the moment. Much of the produce is from local producers, including Kyogle bacon, Bangalow fresh curd, and Nimbin Valley goats’ cheese. Gluten-free options are clearly marked in one of the best menus we’ve seen in some time – fabulously cool yet accessible to diners.
“We find what we can source locally; then we build the dish around the ingredients,” Marc comments. The refocusing of the menu included a complete audit on what they were presently doing. But the big question now is ‘How do we tell our story? How do we make the food approachable?’ We don’t need to be noisy about it; it’s better to get the message out through snippets and insights when people come here. The meal still needs to be amazing, but we need to be present in the service and tailor the experience so that every time someone comes here to dine it’s different and amazing!”
Blackboard at Varsity is now open for dinner, and Nick’s portfolio has expanded to include Blackboard at the upmarket food hub Capri on Via Roma as well as Griffith Street Larder. I ask the inevitable question about Nick’s direction, or long term goals, and how his study has helped him reach those goals.
He laughs: “In some ways I’m doing the opposite of what I was taught. There’s really no end goal here, except ‘No compromise’. That’s the quality we want recognised in our brand. We want to enrich what we’re currently doing without compromising our standards or watering down our vision. And we want to work with people who share the same excitement – get them into their own shop, give them the resources and partner or mentor them so they can achieve that. We aim to grow organically as opportunities arise, not a ‘copy and paste’ business model, but something new that fits that particular community.”
“So the opposite to the franchise model,” I comment.
“Exactly! It’s like jumping off a cliff – scary, but exciting, with an overall goal and mindset: Everything comes from somewhere. When you consume something, think about where it came from. If you could change just a few things, what would they be? Lots of places are driven by the tourist dollar, but we aim to provide local food for local people, no discounting, no mindless consumption, yet no mains over $20. Most of all, we want to know where that food comes from. To us, that’s a really important part of creating a sustainable future.”
Shop 7/240 Varsity Parade, Varsity Lakes Ph: 0419 160 348