About an hour-and-a-half from Melbourne, and just a short drive south of Geelong, Common Ground Project sits on four acres of rural farmland. It’s an idyllic location where you can watch chefs picking fresh greens from raised garden beds while you wait for your woodfired pizza, or children patting chooks and baby goats while you sip on a house-made grapefruit, rosemary and chilli soda.
Common Ground is all about a holistic hospitality approach. It’s the brainchild – or perhaps love child, given the passion with which owner Nathan Toleman speaks about it – of the Mulberry Group team (formerly Top Paddock, Kettle Black, Higher Ground, the group recently opened elevated city bruncherie Liminal).
“Ten years ago when we first started, we were looking for something different. And our customers were as well,” Toleman says. “In general now, people are wanting more … in terms of connection. It’s not enough to go to a cafe and have food that’s beautiful and looks good. You have to know the story behind it.”
The central idea at Common Ground is to nourish not only the diners, but also the chefs, and – using regenerative farming practices – the land.
“The next generation really care about that, more perhaps than we did,” Toleman says. “Things grow and evolve, and I think we have grown and evolved.”
The group took over existing cafe The Farmer’s Place at Freshwater Creek a few months ago, refitting the interior themselves, painting it and putting in a new kitchen. With its corrugated-iron ceiling, horse-trough bathroom sinks and woodburner in the middle of the room, the space is rustic and charming, channelling the farm and the area around it. And the food is no different.
Sandy Melgalvis heads up the kitchen, with chefs from Melbourne visiting for one day a week to make up the rest of the kitchen team. The chefs start with a meditation session together, followed by a team breakfast, then spend time in the kitchen gardens selecting produce and working out the day’s menu. They also get a weekly box of produce delivered to their restaurant back home. The chefs, or their home restaurants, pay $230 a week to be involved.
“Even without the produce you get, in terms of wellness and wellbeing – you can come down, have a meditation and be involved with something outside the kitchen – [that] is something you can’t put a price on,” Toleman says.
Dishes pay homage to the area and the ingredients chefs can get their hands on. There’s an old-school feel to the blackboard menu with both a pie-of-the-day and sausage-roll-of-the-day listed, as well as vanilla-malt or strawberry-jam milkshakes. A wellness bowl comes loaded with farm greens, house-made sauerkraut, turmeric-cashew cream and cauliflower rice. Eggs Benedict is served with a house-made hash brown and woodfired pulled pork sourced from a family-run farm in Barongarook, just an hour up the road. There are beetroot-and-red-lentil fritters too, or try the breakfast gnocchi, served with local wild mushrooms and goat’s cheese.
Simon Pappas (ex-Top Paddock) has swapped his chef’s apron for farmer’s boots and taken on the role of farm manager with the help of some online courses and on-the-job training. Toleman says Pappas was Common Ground’s test case. He started heading out to Toleman’s farm at Merricks on the Mornington Peninsula in an effort to get out of the city and connect with the land. At first he was making the trip once a week, then twice a week, before he finally took the plunge.
“You lose touch with provenance sometimes when you work in a kitchen and just pick up the phone to order produce,” says Toleman. “You never really know where it’s from or who grew it or even really if it’s in season. [At Common Ground], we go out together and sit down with the farm manager and work out what we want to grow. And then plan the menu around that – instead of the other way around.”
Common Ground Project
675 Anglesea Road, Freshwater Creek
Mon to Fri 7am–3pm
Sat & Sun 8am–4pm
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on July 31, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.