There’s so much going on at Fitzroy’s Charcoal Lane that it’s almost impossible to take it in as a whole. First, there’s the focus on providing opportunities for disadvantaged indigenous youth, preparing them for a future in the hospitality industry. Then there’s their work with local indigenous communities to provide a sense of worth and wellbeing for the kids involved. Finally there is a focus on native ingredients that plays out in the acclaimed menu.

But Head Chef Damien Styles is quick to point out that for him, at least, some aspects of the restaurant are more important than others. “I hate the word disadvantaged,” he says as we discuss the training program at Charcoal Lane. “For me that’s not what this place is about. It’s about positivity, giving the kids a shot at something and focusing more on where they are going. It’s about their future, not about their past,” he adds.

“We run two programs for the kids here. First, Certificate II in Hospitality, which is an introductory level 20-week program with about 15 kids. Then we take 12 trainees for Certificate III, a 12-to-18 month program, depending on how long it takes them to get through the course. Everyone learns at a different pace.”

Opened in July 2009, Charcoal Lane is the work of Mission Australia in partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Health Services (VAHS) and Aboriginal Affairs Victoria. The name comes from an Archie Roach song, identifying Charcoal Lane as a significant meeting place for the Victorian Aboriginal community. The motto of the restaurant is ‘reconciliation through dining’, and Styles is a passionate advocate.

“It spoke volumes to me, the whole idea of helping kids. Because there is an absolute skills shortage in this industry, we import a lot of chefs into this country and I think it’s best to just start training our own kids, [improving] their futures and the future of the hospitality industry,” he says with conviction.

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So how does the use of native foods fit into the program? “I would never profess to say that I cook Aboriginal food. I’m not Aboriginal and that would be disrespectful. We teach the kids how to cook from the ground up. Obviously native ingredients scream out to us in this kind of environment, but really what we do is simply modern Australian food with native ingredients used where they work. I never wanted this place to be a novelty Australiana restaurant. It’s about modern food, modern techniques, using good ingredients and well-sourced produce. Then bringing in native ingredients where they fit.”

With wallaby tartare, peppered kangaroo fillet, barramundi and samphire ravioli and gumleaf sabayon on the menu (and receiving rave reviews), it seems the native ingredients fit pretty well. It’s worth noting that all native ingredients are sourced as sustainably as possible, both for the environment and the indigenous communities that gather them, but that’s a whole other story.

“I think a lot of people get what we’re doing and understand what we are trying to achieve before they get here,” says Styles when asked how diners are responding. “But I certainly think that they’re pleasantly surprised after they eat, because the standard is so high. That’s what gets them to come back, the food,” he says thoughtfully.

Styles has been convinced of the importance of Charcoal Lane right from the beginning, despite having just started a new job when he got the call. “They told me about it and after about an hour all I could say was ‘well get me an interview then’. It was as simple as that.

“These kids don’t get many opportunities in their lives so it’s nice to be able to knock down a couple of those walls. And sure, you can’t teach passion, but it can rub off. That’s one of the things I stand by; it’s how I became a chef.” And with that kind of fire these trainees have good chance of catching the bug.

Catch Damien and the Charcoal Lane team at this year’s Taste Melbourne with a host of other local chefs.