Ramzey Choker plunges his coffee-stained hands into the damp soil of a flourishing herb garden. "Take a look at thid." he urges excitedly. “That is just…” he trails off wistfully, crushing some basil between his thumb and index finger then lifting the fragrant leaf to his nose and shutting his eyes.
Immersed in an expanse of vegetable gardens, vibrant blooms and weathered timber, it seems easy to forget we’re at the centre of one of Sydney’s most industrialised suburbs. “Well, it’s a beautiful thing,” Choker snaps back to reality, jumping to his feet and ushering me away from the courtyard and towards the bustling interior of his latest project, The Grounds.
Like many popular cafes to have surfaced in recent months, The Grounds weighs anchor in the outskirts of an area not traditionally known for its eateries. It also has the rustic warehouse atmosphere, sustainable practices, in-house roasting and proclivity for home-style cooking that have come to mark several of Sydney’s new set. Yet, in spite of its familiar motifs, The Grounds is a concept defined by unrivalled grandeur and boundless innovation, the likes of which Sydney cafes have never seen.
Technically, The Grounds is a cafe, though it seems inadequate to define it that way. Really, it’s the culmination of several independent projects, all seamlessly interwoven within a single, somewhat avant-garde enterprise.
“Everyone had their particular area of expertise,” says Choker, referring to a host of talented collaborators that include horticulturalist Erin Martin, interior design agency The Artistry and celebrated French baker Nouel Omamalin. In its simplest dissection, The Grounds consists of a functional organic micro-farm, specialty coffee research facility, independent bakery and a staggering example of post-industrial design.
“It really was the perfect space for this project,” says Choker, as if this fact had eluded him until this very moment. “It’s a heritage-listed building,” he continues as we wander in from the garden, entering the enormous warehouse that harbours his cafe and research facility. “Our concern was that its [historical] significance might impact what we were able to renovate,” he continues, breezing past a procession of denim-clad wait staff towards a glistening espresso machine at the far end of the room.
“Toys like this make a big difference,” he says, resting an affectionate hand on Australia’s most expensive espresso machine, “but it’s the man behind it that’s putting us on the map.”
Enter world latte art champion, Golden Bean winner and co-owner of The Grounds, Jack Hanna.
“We’re doing our best,” says Hanna in a modest, attempt to downplay Choker’s praise. “Very few roasters have the privilege of experimenting like this,” he continues, highlighting The Grounds unique approach to specialty coffee, which involves the reprisal of darker roast profiles and much more intricate blending methods.
“It takes a lot of time and some fancy resources that we’re lucky enough to have at our disposal,” says Hanna. Though the notion of “fancy resources” doesn’t even begin to describe the scale and complexity of The Grounds’ coffee operations, or any other aspect of this self-contained masterpiece for that matter.
“There is definitely a perfectionist mentality at play here,” Hanna offers with a smile. “I just hope we don’t take things too far.”
The words “research facility” burn in yellow neon across the back wall of The Grounds’ onsite roasting laboratory, a small component of a much larger wholesale roasting operation taking place around the corner.
Even with the commercial roasting taking place offsite, the research facility alone harbours enough NASA standard coffee toys to put coffee geeks at serious risk of hyperventilating. There’s a new generation Synesso espresso machine (one of the first in Australia), a customised Clover brewer, Uber boiler, Twin 7kg Probat roasters, volumetric milk taps (invented by The Grounds) and the crown jewel – a one-of-a-kind, retrofitted GS2 espresso machine sitting atop a purpose built brew-bar made from a remoulded shipping container.
Perhaps The Grounds’ greatest contribution to Sydney’s emerging coffee culture is its commitment to education. Putting a great deal of effort into demystifying specialty coffee to a more accessible level, The Grounds has a battalion of articulate, well-informed baristas at your beckoned call. The menu itself provides a crash course in filter coffee and they host regular cupping sessions and barista classes, both commercial and domestic.
Building and Design
Preserving much of the building’s rustic charm, Natalie Longheon and Caroline Choker (Ramzey’s sister) of interior design agency The Artistry have created an entirely new spin on post-industrial aesthetics, converting a dilapidated parking lot and the weathered remnants of an abandoned factory into a set of breathtaking botanical courtyards and gorgeous lo-fi spatial design.
Accented by the tungsten glow of Edison light bulbs, bolstered leather, high-tech machinery and a network of exposed copper piping, the space evokes both scientific discovery and a turn-of-the-century ambience that’s consistent with Hanna’s experimental coffee philosophy.
The layout itself is designed to facilitate your transition into highbrow coffee culture. There’s a six-foot black board illustrating the life cycle of coffee production and a digital readout displaying the espresso machines’ current extraction temperature. You’ll also notice that, like the kitchen, almost everything from the space-age equipment to the entire wall of the research facility is fitted with transparent panels – one of many design elements aimed at creating an educational and engaging environment for patrons.
Courtyard and Organic Garden
Beyond a canopy of ferns, the warm atmosphere of the warehouse explodes into a fertile expanse of garden beds, olive trees, roaming poultry and rustic pergolas.
Operating a fully functional micro-farm within the confines of their courtyard, The Grounds takes a fairly literal approach to self-sufficiency. And like any sensible cafe owner with a private organic garden, Choker has hired Erin Martin, The Grounds’ fulltime Horticulturalist.
Martin’s micro-farm is a small-scale reproduction of The Grounds’ larger farm located in the Hunter Valley, both of which are 100 per cent organic. Though the bulk of the produce is sourced from the Hunter Valley site, the micro-farm generates a large number of vegetables and all of the café’s herbs.
The Grounds’ gardens are also the platform for a number of additional happenings, including a cocktail bar, occasional live bands and weekend markets that trade in the finest seasonal produce the Hunter Valley has to offer.
Bringing new merit to the term ‘woman’s touch’, head chef Lilly Fasan fronts The Grounds’ all-female kitchen.
Determined to not be overshadowed by Hanna’s incredible standard of coffee, Fasan offers a tantalising menu comprising a wholesome, home-style selection of dishes, like the slow-roasted pulled-pork sandwich with slaw, handmade pappardelle with peas, and confit ocean trout with pearl barley.
Separate to the kitchen, The Grounds’ bakery boasts an 800kg bread oven imported from Germany, which churns out a huge selection of house breads and sweet pastries, including a signature potato and onion flatbread. Their baker, Nouel Omamalin, was coaxed away from his position as personal baker to a Saudi Prince and flown over from France specifically for the role.
Outside, the occasional plume of smoke billows up from a weathered shack at the far end of The Grounds’ garden. Here, organic produce is being piled onto handmade pizza bases and baked in a wood-fired oven not 10 metres from were it was grown.
The Grounds of Alexandria
Building 7, 2 Huntley Street, Alexandria
Mon to Fri 7am–4pm
Sat & Sun 7am–3pm