Chris Starke has big plans and not just for Youeni Foodstore, which originated in Darlinghurst, spread to Surry Hills and now boasts a flagship in Castle Hill, which has recently become the core of the brand following the recent sales of the city stores. Rather, Starke’s interests rest in wider ideas of food production and the way the human race nourishes itself.
“I want to change how people eat and consume and I want to develop technologies to do that,” says the chef and entrepreneur over coffee at the Castle Hill branch.
Indeed, Starke doesn’t do things by halves. His career has been marked by grand ambitions and the work ethic to see them through “When I started working I actually started out here at a little Italian restaurant, because I grew up here in Castle Hill,” he explains. “Then a friend of mine bought me the Banc book and I knew it was where I wanted to work…I ended up walking into the kitchen there and saying to Warren Turnbull, ‘I’d really like to work here’.” He laughs. “It wasn’t until later on that Warren told me they hired me because I was passionate and keen, not because of skill.”
After a stint in the Banc kitchens, where he developed lasting relationships that still inform his work today, Starke’s trajectory began to drift in various directions. He worked at 360, did a stint as a landscape gardener, worked as a marketer for Yahoo Local and took some time to develop a client base as a florist. Mindful of the hospitality burnout rate, he was keen on having times away from the industry. But eventually Starke’s winding path led him to the kitchen of Mark Best.
“I was so used to being told ‘you plate it like this’, but Mark just said ‘start like this, and then the rest is up to you’. Literally at that moment I got goose bumps and I knew this was the place.”
There is no doubt that Starke has taken valuable lessons from every facet of his varied career, placing particular emphasis on developing and maintaining relationships, which he sees as part of a sustainable business. When the banks tightened their belts at the beginning of the GFC it meant that Starke couldn’t get backing to expand his florist business and that was when he launched into produce delivery for locals in The Hills district, using a website and ordering system that was built overnight.
Eventually the timing was right for a physical store in Darlinghurst, and despite financial strain (at one point he was down to $47 in his account) the first Youeni Foodstore opened in 2010. Surry Hills and Castle Hill followed in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Recently, Starke has sold off both city Youeni branches, citing a focus on the group’s Castle Hill Flagship behind the closures, with further plans to be unveiled in the near future. But the question remains, beyond the longstanding relationships Starke has built up with producers along the way, what else is there to the Youeni brand that makes it an ethos rather than just another cafe?
The answer is simple enough. “We make everything ourselves,” says Starke after some deliberation. “We’re making cultured butter and our own ricotta.” And that’s not all. They bake their own bread and even make their own jams and preserves to go on it. But there’s more to the idea than just the passion of the artisan. “There’s nothing we don’t make in-house and that makes us self-sustainable. Other than meat and produce, we don’t really need anything. I don’t want to be that sustainability [band]wagon rider. I’m just asking [the question] what is actually sustainable and what is a sustainable business? Something sustainable has to have a complete cycle and it has to be able to sustain itself.”
The biggest plans for Youeni are yet to be unveiled, but if the evolution of the food stores is anything to go by, exciting times await.