One of Broadsheet’s top ten stories of all time was the February 2018 news that the “world’s most sustainable shopping centre” was being planned for Burwood Brickworks in Melbourne’s east.

The development enlisted eco-pioneer, florist and designer Joost Bakker as a creative consultant to help turn the project’s rooftop into an urban farm, cafe and restaurant space, which will open in December as Acre Farm & Eatery.

The cafe will be located inside an enormous glasshouse with 450 square metres of vertical gardens in which about 11,000 seedlings have been planted (mainly high-yield greens and soft herbs). Inside, the kitchen is behind glass walls too, giving diners a view of the chefs cooking the ingredients harvested from the rooftop. Adjacent to the cafe is a farmhouse-style restaurant with large windows looking out over the Dandenong Ranges.

Surrounding both dining rooms will be 2500 square metres of urban agricultural land, including a vertical strawberry garden, a quail coop, established trees and ankle-height gardens that you’ll walk through to reach the glasshouse. Currently being planted are at least 12 varieties of tomato, as well as kale, silverbeet, baby carrots and heirloom baby vegetables, plus established olive and citrus trees. Even the flowers used to decorate the restaurant will be grown on the roof.

“You’ll kind of lose your sense of place going from a shopping centre to what feels like a rural area,” says executive chef Brad Simpson, who spent seven years in the kitchen at Prahran pub The Smith (first as head chef, then as executive chef) before it was sold in July last year. “We want people to feel relaxed, as if they’re in the country, and it’s going to have a warm, homely feel.”

The rooftop gardens and glasshouse will provide some of the produce used in Acre’s kitchens, but they won’t fully sustain them. The gardens are also partly designed to be an educational tool, to get diners to consider the provenance of what they’re eating.

“The reality of the situation is that for us to just use what came off the roof for the restaurant we’d run out pretty quick … you need hectares and hectares of space to do that,” says Simpson. “We’re going to grow as much as we can on the roof while keeping it looking lush so that it can educate people and be a bit of a showpiece for what happens inside.”

Produce brought in from outside will come from local Victorian growers following the same ethos as Acre.

“I’m looking at dealing with farms that operate the same soil-health programs that we will operate on the rooftop. No sort of harsh sprays or anything like that. We want the comparison for what we source outside of the farm to match as closely as possible to what we’re doing on it,” says Simpson, who points to a simple dish of eggplant relish, toasted seeds and baby vegetables as being indicative of his menu.

“It’s probably the most remedial dish on the menu in some ways … it’s kind of a jazzed up crudité plate. It’s utilising stuff that’s just been pulled out of the ground,” he says.

Setting up the kitchen has been a learning process for Simpson, who’s trying to minimise food waste and single-use plastics. For example, he’s done away with a Cryovac – a machine used to vacuum-seal food in plastic bags – something he says he never would have imagined doing without five years ago. And the new skills he’s learning are being integrated into his life outside the Acre kitchen too.

“I’m learning things at home just through this process. I’m saving apple skins and apple cores that my son doesn’t eat and turning it into apple cider vinegar,” says Simpson. “Things that I’d just normally throw out I’ve started thinking about differently. I’m making crackers from old sourdough that I don’t get through and stuff like that.”

In that spirit, expect to see secondary cuts of meat on the homely, approachable menu. One dish in the works is a whole, slow-roasted pork knuckle (using a hind-quarter hocks from free-range Victorian pigs) with lovage and fennel from the garden, and apple.

“I’m really into the family style of eating and making sure our menu’s not too structured, that it’s approachable, colourful, social food,” says Simpson. “I don’t want to be cutting edge … I want it to be social, family food that everyone’s going to be able to sit down and enjoy and most importantly not be intimidated by.”

Acre Farm & Eatery is set to open in early December at Burwood Brickworks, 78 Middlesborough Road, Burwood East.

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