Husband and wife Diego Portilla and Rebecca Howell first met in Kyneton in 2012. Howell was working at the City of Greater Bendigo, co-ordinating the Jamie’s Ministry of Food project. Portilla was working as a chef at Annie Smithers’s eponymous fine diner, now known as Source Dining.
“I’d moved to the country to connect a bit more with the soul of local produce,” says Portilla. He practised beekeeping and learned new culinary skills such as fermentation before he spent a few years working at Daylesford’s Lake House, where he established connections with local farmers and producers.
The couple maintained these relationships even after they moved to Footscray and their new cafe, Small Graces, is committed to using local, ethically sourced ingredients and produce that have undergone minimal processing.
Most of the vegetables come from Goornong in Central Victoria, and eggs from Victoria’s Burd Eggs. Sourdough Kitchen in nearby Seddon supplies bread, and coffee comes from Rumble Coffee Roasters in Kensington. It’s a philosophy that extends to the fit-out, with tiles and ceramics by Melbourne-based Asaka Ceramics.
Small Graces is located in a new Footscray development, opposite the site of the old Little Saigon Market, which burned down in December 2016.
“We built this place from a brand new concrete shell to a humble, cosy and warm hangout,” says Howell. “We just wanted to create a little slice of the neighbourhood with enough room to be kid friendly and allow people to bring in prams and wheelchairs.”
The bright, airy space is north-facing, with outdoor seating for 20 people and another 27 spots inside. A big chalkboard hangs on the mint-green wall – it displays changing specials that make use of seasonal ingredients.
Part of the warmth of the space comes from personal touches added by Portilla and Howell, including wood planters and seating that Portilla built.
“We love the banquette seating, too, with a nook in the corner,” says Howell. “It’s great for families ‘cause you can pile on in there with books and toys for the kids.”
Those who are vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free will find a variety of options on the menu, and dishes that do have meat in them include the protein as an accompaniment to vegetables or salad, rather than the other way around. Portillo also uses less popular cuts of meat where possible, and makes his own ferments.
“Our Eggs Benedict-ish is actually slow-cooked pork neck,” says Portilla. “It’s smoky with crispy components and a beautiful depth of flavour from the jus reduction. No-one’s asking where the bacon’s gone.
“Our sweet-potato waffles with house-made black-sesame ice-cream and grilled banana just happens to be vegan. It’s not overwhelmingly sweet, either. We … rely a lot on natural sugars and flavours … that’s the way we eat at home.”
The name Small Graces reflects what the couple likes best about neighbourhood cafes.
“It’s about indulging in small pleasures and spending time with people you love,” says Howell. “Or spending time alone and appreciating those small moments.”
57 Byron Street, Footscray
(03) 9912 6429
Mon to Fri 7am–4pm
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