It started when an engineer decided to become a cook. That’s how Giorgina Venzin shorthands the origins of her eponymous restaurant and cafe group.
“My dad [Raymund Venzin] was an engineer in Thailand and he gave that up to study cookery,” she says. “He [took classes] at Spirit House [on the Sunshine Coast], loved all that kind of thing.”
Raymund kicked off his own cooking school in Brisbane’s bayside suburbs, and then started selling curry paste at markets around the city. Things got serious when in 2003 he purchased Mons Ban Sabai Thai in Camp Hill. Back when good Thai food was harder to find in Brisbane, Mons would build a reputation for its focus on service and the Venzins’ insistence on hiring Thai nationals in the kitchen.
“It’s still that homely, relatable Thai, but with quality ingredients,” Giorgina says.
After Mons the Venzins were on a roll. They purchased iconic East Brisbane restaurant Green Papaya in 2010, and opened Pawpaw Cafe in the back of the premises in 2012 (Pawpaw Cafe and Green Papaya now operate as a single venue named Pawpaw). Pawpaw was followed by two cafes, Picnic and Piggyback (which have both since been sold); Pawpaw Asian Kitchen in Balmoral; Monocle Coffee in Morningside; and another cafe, Sundays, in Rocklea. Over the years, the focus has shifted slightly from Thai and Southeast Asian restaurant food towards Brisbane’s never-ending appetite for coffee and brunch.
“When we opened Pawpaw and ran it as Pawpaw in the morning and Green Papaya at night, we really saw the growth in breakfast and coffee,” Giorgina says. “So we started dabbling in Thai restaurants at night and cafes during the day.
“That’s why we’ve bought and sold businesses over the years, to create new concepts. We’d maybe then hand it over to someone else and do it again. We like the challenge of something new.”
Next up, though, is arguably the Venzin Group’s biggest challenge yet. Opening in late November is Darvella, a bakery, patisserie and cafe located on Oxford Street in Bulimba. It’s the group’s first build from scratch.
“It costs so much more money than to renovate. So, yeah, holy shit, I hope this takes off because we’re spending a lot,” Giorgina says, laughing.
You suspect it will take off. Sitting at the relatively under-serviced river end of Oxford Street, Darvella will flip sourdough, a variety of Swiss-style breads, croissants, tarts and triple-tier signature baby cakes, alongside other freshly baked goods. There will also be a deli section serving Swiss cheeses from Eudlo-based Fromart, and sister venue Monocle Coffee’s house-blend espresso.
“We want you to be able to come in and buy your bread, your croissants and your cheese and be able to go and have a European-style breakfast at home,” Giorgina says.
Overseeing Darvella’s fit-out is Clui Design, the South Brisbane design firm drafting up a beautiful space that will feature plenty of timber, terracotta, flagstone paving and bifold windows. Customers will be able to see through to a large kitchen at the back of the venue, where head pastry chef Lindsay Krahenbring will oversee the baking for all the Venzin venues.
Opening a new venue during Covid might seem ambitious but, like many restaurants, cafes and bakeries in 2020, the idea for Darvella was seeded by the federally mandated lockdown that threw the local hospitality industry into turmoil in late March and April.
“Covid hit Pawpaw particularly hard,” Giorgina says. “At Mons and Asian Kitchen, we do a lot of takeaway and we already had systems in place. But people weren’t thinking at all about going to Pawpaw because it’s such a destination space.”
So the Venzins hired Krahenbring to temporarily transform the cafe into bakery pop-up. “It grew and grew from there,” Giorgina says. “[Krahenbring] is amazing and we just vibe so we thought, ‘Let’s go in this direction. Let’s do something new and fun.’”
Darvella will open at 37 Oxford Street, Bulimba in late November.