Hot ham and pudding at the Three Steps

Welcome to the Three Steps Cafe

Welcome to the Three Steps Cafe

If I were mayor handing out awards to places and people that hold the community together, one of the first would go to the Three Steps on Bondi Road, a local institution that calls itself a café but is rightly pictured as a retro diner, with plastic sauce bottles on yellow laminex tables and about a hundred varieties of eggs and bacon, ham, sausages, burgers, steak and chips.

I’d been there now and then, after noticing that the Three Steps was a haven for taxidrivers, at least in the days there was a taxi garage over the road. Though the garage was demolished years ago, leaving nothing but a weed-strewn lot, the Three Steps is still a home away from home for the travellers, tradesmen and taxidrivers who turn up at all hours, not only for the heaped plates of comfort food, old-fashioned ambience and old school prices, but for the warmth of human company, as distinct as the steam rising from the espresso machine.

Open since the nineteen-sixties, the Three Steps has been owned for almost a quarter-century by Mehmet Ozer, a short, lively, middle-aged man with a twinkle in his eye and a kindness so boundless that regular customers who’ve known him a long time will tell you about the number of down-and-outs he gives a feed.

Mehmet Ozer at the Three Steps

Mehmet Ozer at the Three Steps

Something of the same effusive spirit pervades his café with its nondescript exterior and its flapping green awnings; along with its bestseller bacon and egg rolls for $4.90, burgers with poetic names like El Torro and Zingara, and kebabs worth a poem on their own, the Three Steps offers a refuge from the anonymity and indifference of life in a big city.

When I hung out there myself, I met customers who go in for a chat whether they’ve eaten or not. Rekah Balendran came from London six months ago to work for an investment bank, no sooner moving to Bondi with friends than she found herself irresistibly drawn back to the congenial atmosphere of the Three Steps. “No matter what time it is, I’ll stop and have a conversation. Even if it’s midnight. Sometimes I’ll sit half an hour talking to them,” Rekah told me one evening, shortly before a commotion erupted out on Bondi Road.

The young woman exuberantly abusing her boyfriend at the top of her voice seemed to have been celebrating St Patrick’s Day in advance of the occasion. Coming to a sudden halt in front of the café, she aimed one last “fecking eejit” in her feller’s direction before turning to beam at Mahmoud Aktogan, the night shift man at the Three Steps since he arrived in Sydney – and Bondi – seventeen years ago.

Mahmoud Aktogan on the night shift

Mahmoud Aktogan on the night shift

Mahmoud doesn’t just remember customers’ names, he remembers what they usually order. He knew without being told that the woman had her mind set on a bread roll with bacon, sausage, egg, cheese, mushrooms, ham, hash browns, pudding and onion, a speciality of the house called an Irish roll. “No mushroom, no onion,” he added serenely, even before she could remind him of the way she liked it. It was ten at night. The Three Steps would be open another two hours, and re-open before six in the morning.

Bondi has such an oversupply of eateries some neighbourhoods are beset by cafes, restaurants and bars, but the Three Steps is one of the last, if not the last joint open all hours for the working people who start early or finish late. “Taxidrivers kick the door if we’re not open right on time,” Mehmet Ozer tells me with a laugh one day, availing himself of the opportunity to add that they stay open even if it’s quiet. “We’re always here for our customers,” he said. I had already noticed he wasn’t one to let a marketing opportunity go to waste. The explanation was not long in coming.

Mehmet grew up in Turkey, and was in marketing as a young man, as the colourful names of some of his dishes attest. But as luck would have it, on landing in Sydney at the age of twenty-four, he started working for a man with a chain of kebab shops, who taught him to cook, passing on the all-important secret of the sauce in which the kebab meat is marinated before it is cooked to order.

Before long, Mehmet had bought the Three Steps, “slowly, slowly” expanding into the house behind the original grill, managing to retain the unreconstructed décor of an old greasy spoon, with garish pictures of hamburgers and chips on the wall-sized menus. But the Three Steps is a place apart. Twelve people work there. Six of them, including Mehmet and his brother, their nephew Sammy and his brother, and Mahmoud Aktogan, a one-time high school teacher, come from the same village in south-eastern Turkey where the population is predominantly Kurdish.

Tempting as it was to imagine the Three Steps as a little bit of Kurdistan down the road from Bondi Junction, it was the wrong image altogether. The diner exemplifies multiculturalism at its inclusive best. I was still sitting talking to Mehmet when his friend, the rabbi, appeared in the distinctive broad-brimmed black hat worn by the ultra-Orthodox. But the religious Jews who live in the neighbourhood only eat at kosher places.

Mehmet and his friend, the rabbi

Mehmet and his friend, the rabbi

The Three Steps has been adopted instead by the latest arrivals – the Irish transplants who have clustered in the surrounding streets – which is why you’ll find posters for Barry’s Tea, Club Soda and “McDonnells: Ireland’s No 1 curry sauce” hung over the railings, and why I found it full of people wearing green last Sunday.

“This is an Irish place,” said Deidre Hunt, who had ordered an Irish breakfast (scrambled eggs, hash browns, hot ham, mushrooms and pudding), a taste of home after her four years in Bondi. Bound for the St Patrick’s Day march in the city, like many customers that morning, she made it clear that having breakfast beforehand at the Three Steps had become part of the tradition.

Mehmet was as busy as everyone else at work that day, but he wanted to check he hadn’t let one more marketing opportunity slip by. He paused by my table a moment: “Can we say the Three Steps has something to offer everyone?

“And don’t forget we have the best kebabs in Australia,” he added, before hurrying off with another armload of dirty dishes.

Deidre Hunt, St Patrick's Day

Deidre Hunt and Aidan Bockley, St Patrick’s Day

Aine Bourke, a long way from Tipperary

Aine Bourke, a long way from Tipperary

Friends from Ireland celebrate St Patrick's Day at the Three Steps

From left to r ight: Linda Sullivan, Sam Stephenson, Jenny Macdonald, Ellen Hanrahan, Neil Burgess, James O’Connor and the forgetful photographer, St Patrick’s Day

Gertrude, Alice and Jane

By Elisabeth Wynhausen

Gertrude and Alice cafe bookstore

Welcome to Gertrude and Alice

There are too many cafes on Hall Street, Bondi, but there is one we couldn’t possibly do without. Not just the locals, either. The Gertrude and Alice Café Bookstore has so ardent a following some people cross Sydney in lumbering buses to get there. Halfway up Hall Street, behind a modest shopfront with ancient school desks, battered benches and a bedraggled bookcase parked outside, Gertrude and Alice seems to exist in a realm all its own, as if sequestered from the everyday world.

Past the pocket-size kitchen and the cash register is the first of three cosy rooms with more old benches and overflowing bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling. There are books everywhere, of course. Books are piled in corners. Books are arranged upright on the tables and straggle along the floor against the shelves. Books have tumbled into a little heap onto the burnt orange velvet sofa, the best seat in the house.

If you pause to pick out a handful for yourself before settling down with your Moroccan mint tea and fruit loaf, the sense of amplitude in the presence of twenty-five thousand books is infinitely multiplied by the serendipity of second-hand bookshops. Gertrude and Alice now stocks new books as well, but tucks them in together with all the rest, taking little away from the thrill of picking up books you didn’t even know you were looking for until you found them.

Jane Turner at Gertrude and Alice

Jane Turner at Gertrude and Alice

I’ve been dropping in since the place opened twelve years ago but it wasn’t until I sat down to talk with Jane Turner, who owns Gertrude and Alice, that I learned that the enticing muddle of books piled here and books piled there is contrived to appeal to customers. Confronted with shelves that are too tidy, “they won’t touch them,” Jane told me, the other day, confessing that she had agonised about the decision to supplement the second-hand books with new ones, like the $9.95 Penguin classics that mean no-one need ever again search her shelves high and low for a hard-to-find copy of Kerouac’s “On the Road”.

Bookshelves at Gertrude and Alice

Oh good, the shelves aren’t too tidy.

Boxes after box of the new books turned up last October. “I thought what have I done” said Jane, a fresh-faced, forthright woman of fifty often to be seen in Gertrude and Alice sitting on an upturned milk crate and frowning in concentration, because she is worrying about the business, while wondering where to fit the books in the box at her feet.

Events proved her right, however. It was a bumper Christmas. Whatever the trials of the book trade, in fact, Gertrude and Alice is usually packed out, as it has been almost since the opening, in premises further down the street. Jane, a Bondi local who had spent many years as a bookseller, had run into author Katerina Cosgrove, who had worked in cafes to support herself while writing.

Only briefly a partner in the business they conjured up between them (for she would soon be writing fulltime), Katerina has said they chose the name Gertrude and Alice because they were inspired by accounts of the cultural and literary life of Paris in the days Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas presided over one of the most famous salons in that city.

From the first Gertrude and Alice so completely filled the niche it had created that it was difficult to imagine the neighbourhood without it. Good food and good books combine two of the great pleasures of life and the new café bookstore combined them with such panache it promptly became a hip place to hang out.

Women reading at Gertrude and Alice

A hip place to hang out – and read.

The buzz about Gertrude and Alice never died down. But the original premises were larger by far. Writers who had worked on their manuscripts at one of the scarred tables came back there to launch their books. There were local music nights once a week. Then disaster struck. The building was to be redeveloped. In 2006 Jane was given notice. For a time it looked as if she would be forced to close. Shortly before the death knell, much to our relief, she found premises over the road from the Hakoah Club, a little further up the street, and fitted in what bookshelves she could, before the place filled up again.

People seem to like little better than sitting surrounded by books, whether or not they buy them. The question is if they will buy enough of them to ensure the future of this much loved local institution.

Tucked into the sofa the other day, taking cover behind a book boldly subtitled “The Sequel to Les Miserables” (though drafted a hundred and sixteen years after Victor Hugo breathed his last), I took stock. A woman read to a little girl who might have been five years old. A tall, gaunt, almost cadaverous man with furrowed cheeks sat bent over his book in seeming absorption as the woman seated across the table from him gave her companion strenous advice about his love life. No books were involved. The other customers I could see were busy with their mobiles and laptops.

Girls look at mobile phone at Gertrude and Alice

The seductive call of the mobile, Gertrude and Alice

All had had something to eat or drink, of course. Though the menu was more extensive in the other premises, where there was more space to cook, it is impossible not to marvel at the culinary feats the Gertrude and Alice staff carry off in a space barely large enough to swing a saucepan. Indeed the café has sustained the rest of the business when times are tough, and times have seldom been tougher for people in the book trade than they were last year, when the other bookshop in Hall Street closed down.

But Jane isn’t one to give up. She secured an alcohol licence and brought in the new books. Long an active participant in the neighbourhood’s cultural life, she went one step further, and became a sponsor of ‘The Nib’ Waverley Library Award for Literature.

Outside Gertrude and Alice one day, she turned to look across the street. What used to be the Hakoah Club is buried under a huge building still hidden behind hoardings. Construction of the eight-story apartment complex has been a nightmare for those who live or work close by; now they’re worrying what will happen the building is finished and people are moving in. Not Jane Turner, who had heard there would be a hundred and thirty-two serviced apartments in the complex.

Briefly picturing the hundreds of people emerging from the building to check out the café bookstore on the other side of the street, she gave the ghost of a grin. “It might be our salvation,” she said.

Postscript: But if I’ve persuaded you to go and pick up some books while sampling something delicious, think twice about going today. There’s only a barista there. Jane has taken the staff for a short vacation in the country to thank them for all their hard work over Christmas. They’ll be back tomorrow.

Give us this day our daily amaranth and quinoa

by Elisabeth Wynhausen

Just after six am, four hours after he arrived to get the ovens going, baker Gus Morrison, a tall man with a slow, shy smile and a flour-dusted apron, stood at a pine benchtop weighing and shaping the traditional l‘ancienne dough that had been sitting in a tub all night. It was the morning rush at Organic Republic, my favourite bakery in Bondi.

By the time the baguettes and rolls had come out of the ovens to be stacked on trays, the heady scent of wheat berry filled the air and the queue on the other side of the counter had spilled out onto the pavement.

Organic Republic, a bakery-cafe straddling the corner of Warners and Glenayr Avenues, North Bondi, bakes bread, buns and scones so ambrosial that tasting them makes you feel better than you felt a moment before. The news has got around. By now bread from Organic Republic gets first billing on some restaurant menus and the bakery many believe to be the best in Sydney gets through two tonnes of flour each week.

Its artisanal breads include a gluten-free wholemeal, an unbleached white, a white sourdough, diverse multigrains, a whole rye sourdough and amaranth and quinoa; having long since worked my way through this list, I went to meet the man who dreamed it all up, a former industrialist from New Zealand, who crossed the Tasman and restarted his life, after a messy divorce.

“I’ve been here since 2004,” Murray Begg told me. “I kind of retired in my early 40s.” By then he had built up a big business that manufactured high-end footwear and leather goods, with a factory in Christchurch and stores dotted around New Zealand. These days instead, he often manages to look as if he’s on holiday, leaning against the Prussian-blue walls of Organic Republic , or sitting chatting with one or other of his many acquaintances, his long legs folded under a café table.

Murray Begg behind the scenes at Organic Republic

But ask him the secret of producing breads so full-flavoured other breads pale beside them and Murray, a genial eccentric with a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper moustache, sounds like a man on a mission.

Convinced that the quality of the product depends not merely on the ingredients, but on the attitudes of the people making it, he has constructed his bakery with the idea of making the work more satisfying for his employees. They’re expected to develop their skills and use their judgement rather than being treated like extensions of the equipment they handle . The happier they are at work, he insists, the better the bread, not to mention the spelt scones and orange almond cupcakes.

Organic Republic is his second bakery. When he quit corporate life he took himself off to live in Golden Bay, a coastal town on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island he likens to Byron Bay. There he opened his first bakery and started playing around with traditional recipes while learning the craft of baking first-hand.

I happen to think that supplying people with superlative bread is not merely a necessary calling but a noble one. Different as it may be from manufacturing shoes made to last, both businesses were strongly influenced by ethical and environmental considerations Murray relates to values he inherited from his parents.

His father, from a family that had emigrated from Scotland, was a man ahead of his time with a belief in social justice he passed on to his children. Murray and his sisters were also raised with the idea they could do anything – as long as they worked hard, planned well and learned from their mistakes.

The confidence this solid grounding gave Murray would bring its own sense of obligation, to employees and customers alike. “You want to produce for your customers the very best product you can, while conforming to those ethics that matter most.”

Managing a supply chain in accordance with those ethics sets up competing demands. Products as organic as the air itself may be compromised by more food miles than a packet of airline pretzels. Murray does the best he can in an imperfect world.

He finds local growers of fruit and vegetables. He buys his stoneground organic flours from the Wholegrain Milling Company, a family-owned business in Gunnedah, in the heart of the wheatbelt in NSW, and then, being a perfectionist, somehow produces flavours so complex and intriguing that savouring a slice of Organic Republic’s amaranth and quinoa makes you wonder if you’ve ever really tasted bread before.