“I wanted to create a venue that felt and looked like it could only be in this place, at this time,” says Palisa Anderson, director of Boon Cafe in Haymarket. Anderson is also the director of Chat Thai, one of Sydney’s best-known Thai restaurants, which was founded by her mother.
Anderson has nailed the brief. There aren’t many places you can visit in the morning for either a Single O latte and an almond croissant, or a lemongrass-and-pandan tisane and slice of durian crème Victorian sponge cake. For lunch, Brickfields-bread sandwiches are stuffed with Thai ingredients, such as the nahm prik num with green-chilli relish, spicy pork sausage, pork-crackling crumbs, egg and pickled cabbage salad. It’s not Thai and Western food slapped together – it’s something new, and very Sydney.
At night the food is more traditional Isan (north-eastern Thai) food, with gutsy flavours and lots of spice. It’s not advertised, but locals know from 2pm until midnight you can get a snack-sized bowl of noodles for just $5. “Much better than hot chips” says Anderson.
Inside the premises, the Jarern Chai grocer takes up the right half of the space and includes a spacious cool room of produce. “When we started opening more restaurants [there are now six Chat Thais], rather than buying from the middle man we thought we’d go directly to the source,” says Anderson. “We approached small farmers growing Thai basil, holy basil. People started noticing how fresh our produce was and we asked ourselves, ‘What else can we do?’”.
She approached rice farms in Thailand and began importing single-origin Jasmine rice and coconut milk without emulsifiers. This became a wholesale arm of the business when they began supplying to other restaurants. The Chat Thai warehouse kept expanding, so the family decided to do retail, too.
When the business found a space with a double shopfront it opened the cafe “so our staff would have somewhere to hang out before and after service,” says Anderson. “It took off.” When it’s quiet here, chefs produce the takeaway boxes sold in the grocer. “People get restaurant-quality food that’s really affordable,” she says.
Anderson has taken the business’s passion for produce even further – it now owns an organic, 100-acre farm in Byron Bay. Half of it has been turned back into Australian native bushland, and the other half grows eggplants, kaffir lime, herbs, shallots, watermelons, garlic, tomatoes, finger limes and raises chickens.
It’s the large-scale version of Anderson’s childhood. Her mother made Anderson a little garden plot in their tiny Cammeray backyard for something to do and Anderson took to it. She started growing whatever she could. “Anything with roots or a hard stem – I’d put the offcuts from dinner in a glass of water, it would start to root and then it would go into the ground,” she says. “We still practise it – I ask all the chefs to keep the vegetable roots and we plant it at the farm. It’s a lot faster and saves it from going to landfill.”
An immense amount of thought and heart goes into the business. “I think that’s why it’s worked,” says Anderson. “To do something truly different is wonderful – it doesn’t have to be polished. We had these beautiful price signs we used to print, but people like the handwritten ones more, spelling mistakes and all. We live in an auto-correct world; it’s quite nice to see human imperfection – what’s wrong with that?”