“Breaking the Mould” – INTERVIEW WITH THE “CUNNING CULINARIAN” – Alina Mackee
At a time when so many Cafes and restaurants are folding,.. because of the COVID-induced problems and complications of running a business, it is interesting to discover Cafes and Restaurants that are “weathering the COVID 19 storm” and actually surviving pretty well,… thanks to having a loyal Community following and offering comfortable or stylish surroundings and quality food and service.
The editor of the ST Food Guide was recently visiting Maitland in the NSW Hunter region to explore regional Holiday travel themes,.. and whilst not expecting anything more than a “pedestrian country cafe”,.. stumbled upon a “hidden gem” i.e. a fantastic and very civilized Cafe in Maitland,… with understated elegance and sophistication,..,.. when not expecting anything special. I found the whole experience quite inspirational so we realized by doing an interview with the proprietor Alina Mackee. We had an opportunity to share this with our growing audience in the Food and Hospitality sector. This provides our readers with a compelling and inspirational read,.. so We now have several new interviews with “Restaurateurs and Publicans,..“who are seeking to “pivot or rebalance, and move forward” in the pipeline!
We hope you enjoy this new addition to the ST Food Guide!
Interview by Axel Ritenis (Editor of the Sydney Times)with the “Cunning Culinarian” Alina Mackee
1.) Alina, I am so impressed with your Cafe project… I just wanted to ask you about the history and the philosophy behind your lovely establishment so you mentioned that you wanted the atmosphere to be “like in your home”,..can you elaborate on this, please?
When I established The Cunning Culinarian, cafe trends were very industrial. Warehouse and minimalist styles were prominent, and I absolutely love them but felt strongly that following those trends wouldn’t be true to myself or to the beautiful building we inhabit. I wanted a warm and comfortable feel that invited people to settle in and linger. I wanted my customers to feel like warmly welcomed guests, and for the cafe kitchen and front counter to feel like an extension of my home kitchen, where friends often settle in for evenings of watching me cook, chatting, laughing, eating, drinking, and sometimes dancing.
Interior-Understated comfort and sophistication “country style”
2.) Is it supposed to be Parisian in style? ,..I saw this somewhere?
It’s very flattering to me that people would think that, and I’m definitely heavily influenced by French bistro culture. I feel most at home in the cafes of Montmartre, sitting on the sidewalk and watching people pass. In fact, it was in one such cafe (Serving Australian style coffee, because we do it best!) that I made the decision to open The Cunning Culinarian.
3.) How long did it take you to set it up?
It took months and months to secure a lease and keys to the building. For some reason unknown, the landlords weren’t in a hurry to take my money, which is crazy because the building had been empty and unloved for a very long time. There had been an internal fire, and the weeds growing through the courtyard pavers were forest-like in their density and taller than me!
Once I had the keys it was a different story! It took me only just over 6 weeks from the day I had the keys to completed fit-out! I used the months of waiting for a signed lease to save hard, purchase equipment, and plan, so when the time came I was ready to work hard and make things happen!
Exterior Street view of Cafe facade
4.) Did you supervise the renovation or the building work?
I sure did! And I completed a lot of it on my own, as well. I worked closely with an amazing builder, Nick of NGC Constructions, to do the things that were beyond my skill set, and together we made something that I’m very proud of.
5.) Who designed the concept and the interior? Did you use the services of architects or interior decorators etc.?
I designed the concept and interior myself. I do remember having the thought that perhaps I was being very brave and/or foolish to not have a professional create a design for me, and who knows what amazing space could have been created that way? But I love that my whole heart went into TCC, and I don’t have any regrets.
6.) It Must have been painstaking attention to detail? How long have you been in business?
The Cunning Culinarian opened its doors to the public in the first week of July 2017.
7.) It’s clearly your passion,..does owning and operating a Cafe leave you any time for normal family life outside work? I mean,..it is so demanding,…how do you manage the Children and the business?
It is very demanding, and I can get pretty cranky when after a 5 am start and a busy day on the floor, I then have hours of bookwork and admin tasks to complete in the evening. I have an amazing family, three children who are fast becoming young adults, and I’m so grateful for their love and support in my business. I think that cafe life has been a wonderful experience for them, and I know that they’re proud of me and of the cafe. I also have the most supportive and loyal staff on the planet, who have become like family. It feels like my kids have these extra big sisters to guide and support them, I’m so thankful. The cafe has become a great introduction to the workplace for my children also, and I know that being witness to the work ethic and passion of my team and I will set them up for successful futures.
COVID 19 inspired Alina and her Team to further develop the Catering side of her business and “Take out” Dining options
8.). You must be super Organized!
Yes, I blame it on being a Virgo!!
9.) So what about your vocational background your training and experience?
I don’t actually have any training in food, other than the informal, but very strict and valuable, apprenticeship in my (chef) father’s kitchen. I used to be one of his weekend staff, and I remember the way he would hold me to a much higher standard than his other cooks, in spite of being the youngest. I’m very grateful to him for that, he taught me so much, not just about cooking but also about respect and business relationships. He is the most generous and patient man. All of my professional qualifications are in nursing and health care. In this area, it was my Mother’s footsteps I followed, even working in the same hospital as she once did. She is the most compassionate and wholistic nurse, and because of her example, I grew up not even being able to imagine a career that wasn’t focused on doing good. I do feel that nursing and cooking are very similar vocations, driven by the desire to nurture and care for people.
10.) How do you go about developing your Recipes,..Have you done a Recipe book,..?Have you picked up ideas or inspiration whilst traveling?
My recipes really just get made up as I go along, helped by a good foundational understanding of baking principles and flavour balancing. I’ll see food on TV, or eat out, and in my mind I’m already recreating the dishes, adding flavours I love, or simplifying techniques. I haven’t written a recipe book, In a way, I would love to, but it’s a saturated market and I don’t know if I have anything valuable to add to that space. Travel has certainly inspired me, and I have been so fortunate to have visited some incredible places both alone and with my family. Next on my travel wish-list is Umbria!
11.) I know you are a Bollinger girl,… so you have impeccable taste!..so what are your personal favourite Dishes and Wines, please?!
I’m definitely a Bollinger girl! I also love the Vat 9 Shiraz from Tyrrells in the Hunter Valley and Usher Tinkler Prosecco, for local wines. Stefano Lubiana Pinot Noir and Heemskerk sparkling from my homeland in Tasmania are all-time favourites.
12.) Also what “Faves” do you have in your own region,..the Hunter region,… You mentioned Sabor Dessert Bar in Pokolbin,… any others ?!
I love Exp. Restaurant by Frank Fawkner for an interactive and boundary-challenging food experience. On my days off you’ll find me drinking delicious coffee at The Coffee Cubby, Woodville, where I began my barista career, or eating lunch and reading a book overlooking the river at Coquun, (In Maitland ). Later, I’ll be drinking wine and eating Rillettes at Boydell’s Morpeth, or enjoying Mexican food and Margaritas at Muchos (in Maitland).
13.) Which Chefs do you admire the most?
Maggie Beer is my Queen, and I am so grateful for everything she has contributed to the Australian food culture. I also have endless love and respect for Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver, Anthony Bourdain, and Nigella Lawson. My favourite way to relax is watching cooking shows featuring these inspiring cooks and chefs, even after spending all day in a kitchen!
14.) Which Sydney restaurants do you like or recommend for whatever reasons?!
Oh, my! My favourite treat is to take myself to Sydney alone for a night or two of food and wine! I always stay at QT Sydney, and their Italian restaurant Parlour Cucina is a favourite. They also serve The Little Marionette coffee, as I do. I love dumplings at Mr. Wongs, oysters at Bennelong, guacamole prepared in a mortar and pestle at the table at Mejico, and the majesty of a Lychee rose cocktail at the iconic Marble bar located at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney’s CBD.
Some of the “Must Try dishes” at the Cunning Culinarian include:
Our Iconic Corn & Feta Fritters, with Smashed Avo, Bacon, Sour Cream and House Relish
The Ultimate Brekky Roll, with Herbed Scrambled Eggs, Bacon, Avocado, Relish, and our Homemade Smoked Honey Aioli
Lemon Ricotta Hotcakes with Citrus Curd, Berries, Vanilla Bean Cream & Honeycomb Butter – from our upcoming Summer menu
Cunning Culinarian Cafe