Walk into East Elevation in Melbourne’s suburb of Brunswick, and you’ll see the usual signs of a hip cafe: exposed brick, glass bottles instead of carafes for serving water, daily offerings scrawled onto a blackboard. But while the cafe formula may be easy to replicate, it’s often hard to perfect, with many places feeling more like cookie-cutter renditions that merely reflect a trend instead of a wholehearted passion for running a coffee and food operation. Thankfully, East Elevation is far from that.
Part cafe, part restaurant, part event space and part chocolate factory, what had attracted me to East Elevation was an article I had read about their sustainability practices. The space not only houses the bean-to-bar Monsieur Truffe chocolate factory (yes, that means single origin hot chocolates for you to drink), but upstairs there’s a small kitchen garden for growing mushrooms and microgreens. Walk around and you’ll see a few. Sunflower, buckwheat, lentil—the greens are sprouting everywhere, and you’ll find them on the East Elevation menu, but you’re also more than welcome to give them a prune or buy some to take home.
Cafes and restaurants that source some of their ingredients from their own gardens is nothing new, but the idea of growing microgreens—East Elevation has eleven varieties going from basil to lentil—feels fresh. And while most gardens that supply cafes or restaurants aren’t usually seen by the customer, here you’re right in the middle of it. With the glass ceilings and assorted greenery stashed around the space, East Elevation certainly looks more like a greenhouse than a cafe, with vines and plants everywhere that you look.
Beyond microgreens, East Elevation is also growing its own mushrooms that it uses in its creative, and very vegetarian-friendly, menu. The mushrooms are grown using both cacao bean shells from the chocolate roasting and coffee grounds from the cafe. The method of growing mushrooms with coffee grounds is a practice that has gained speed in the organic gardening community for its creative way of reusing of waste; instead of having to toss coffee grounds in the rubbish bin, you can use them to grow food instead. In fact if you’re interested, you should check out Back to the Roots, an innovative agriculture startup which sells a mushroom-growing kit for use with your coffee grounds at home. [ed: for even more info on that, Back to the Roots co-founder Alejandro Velez gave a fascinating SCAA Symposium talk on the company.]
But back to East Elevation.
I had a chance to chat with head chef Brian Edwards about the space and the driving factors behind it all. He handed me a small printout that had a little information about all the things they had going at East Elevation, from their microgreens to their allotment plot down the street where they grow a lot of the produce that’s used in the kitchen. The woman serving my coffee had been at the garden only that afternoon, and the carrots she had pulled were now roasting in the kitchen. The plot is also home to six quails, who kindly lay eggs for the menu as well.
There’s no surprise that this type of space works well in this part of town. Let’s put it this way: I accidentally referred to it as Bushwick, which obviously was some sort of Brooklyn-inspired Freudian slip. With a willing clientele, Edwards sees the potential for educating as well. In fact I asked him if people came to East Elevation because of the sustainability practices, but he said that “the clients mainly didn't have any idea of our sustainability practices until I printed up those Did You Know? flyers.” He’s been able to use those flyers as a talking point and continue to grow a business that’s focused on being as local as possible.
While cocoa and coffee beans aren’t by any means a local product, at least they’re roasted nearby. You can not only drink Monsieur Truffe hot chocolate in the cafe, but you can also pick up a bar or two (although this kind of local, artisan craftsmanship will run you $11 AUD a bar) made right here on site, and coffee comes from Padre Coffee, just a few blocks down the street.
In the last three years, East Elevation has been growing and evolving into what it is today, and much like the sustainability practices that it supports, the team continues to look for other ways to expand.
Edwards mentioned that he and one of the women working in the cafe had just attended a beekeeping class the previous weekend. You could tell they were both excited; the idea is to get a few beehives on the allotment and start bottling their own East Elevation honey.
“After bees, I want to look at aquaponics…not sure where I will put it but that would be cool,” says Edwards. “In five years I would love all the vines and plants to have taken over and there are ripe passionfruits falling in peoples granola as they are eating.”
Call me a dirty hippy in the search for cafe utopia, but I’d be into that.
All photos by Anna Brones.