Like many of the cafes that make up the vibrant culture we enjoy in Melbourne, Pope Joan is open seven days, for breakfast and lunch. There’re eggs, bacon, sandwiches and coffee but you don’t even need to scratch the surface to see that those words are where any similarities stop and something interesting begins.
Since early July we’ve been romanced by the female pope – the mysterious character many still believe to be fictional who, it is alleged, lead the Catholic church during the Middle Ages – and the boys who have brought her to our consciousness seem to have set out a little like Joanie must have done in her hey day: by doing something different.
Pope Joan is Ben Foster’s brainchild. Foster is a hospitality pro who worked at Carlton’s Kent Hotel for 16 years, the last ten as general manager. Creating his own place has been something he’s been planning for a long time. “I’ve always made conservative work choices up to this point,” he explains. “I wanted to do something for myself, and now I have a family a cafe is where I see myself at this stage.”
With his goal to own a cafe decided, Foster’s background instilled in him a desire to do ‘not just another cafe’. He intended to do something different within the context of a cafe; different here means quality, experience and, as Foster puts it, “something special”. Service plays heavily in this theory. As Foster explains, “so often you go to a cafe and the service is really average or grumpy. I reckon a lot of cafe waiters either don’t like hospitality work or don’t want to work nights; they don’t do it for the love of hospitality. That’s how it seems to me.”
The ethos behind Pope Joan is the antithesis to this apathy. “I wanted to open a place that had experienced staff, where the service is spot-on and people are happy to be there – and this goal spoke to Matt’s professional take too.”
The Matt that Foster mentions is Matt Wilkinson, head chef of St Kilda’s Circa until the end of August, who is the co-owner of Pope Joan . Even though he won’t be full-time in the kitchen, his stamp is all over the menu and the broader Pope Joan philosophy.
Wilkinson seems to be adapting to his new role away from the high-end, two-hat culture that Circa nurtured. “I’ve gone from cooking in a multi-million dollar business to cooking breakfast in a cafe. It’s actually delightful!”
Though Wilkinson would never cook just any old breakfast or lunch; here he uses his contacts from his five years at Circa to supply the kitchen and customers with quality product and experienced staff. “The hours in a cafe can be easier for chefs who can’t do nights anymore because they might have a family, or for staff who want to have a life,” he notes. “We’ve got some great guys here, but this is Ben’s baby and I consult on food.”
The product speaks for itself: the bacon and the eggs are locally sourced and free-range, as is all the produce; the fish is smoked, off-premises, just for Pope Joan ; coffee is Allpress and salads are seasonal only. “Don’t expect to see a fresh tomato on the menu in August,” Wilkinson insists. “It ain’t going to be there.”
You may pay a few extra dollars for what you receive at Pope Joan but, simply put, you get what you pay for, and in a room designed by Foster, fed by Wilkinson and staffed with experienced waiters, baristas and chefs who want to be there, that’s a few extra dollars well spent.
As Wilkinson puts it, “I don’t want to use crap and I feel that Melbourne is now big enough that if you think we are too expensive or you don’t like it, you can easily go elsewhere.”
Pope Joan - long may she bless East Brunswick.
77–79 Nicholson Street, East Brunswick
(03) 9388 8858