“My name is Carly-Marie and I have a collection of over a hundred cookbooks” is what I imagine I would say if I was introducing myself at a foodie version of A.A. But instead I’m saying this in front of 11 enthusiastic guests at Table for 12. It becomes evident through their introductions that not all of them have such dedicated obsessions or are passionate cooks like myself, yet it becomes very clear that we do have one very important thing in common. We all love to eat good food.
The table of twelve is made up of myself and a friend, a group of seven work colleagues, a solo diner and another pair of friends. None of us really know each other, but we’ve come together prepared to share food with one another over the next three hours. Welcome to Table for 12.
The brainchild of Mallee resident Kaye O’Toole, Table for 12 is definitely a one-of-a-kind eating establishment. With the original intention of setting up a cooking school, Kaye had found her ideal location in Campbell Street, but it lacked the necessary space to set up as a functioning cooking school. So with some re-thinking, Kaye decided to combine her two favourite things about food- sharing recipes and techniques, and feeding large groups of people in her family home- into an interactive dining experience. And sitting at the large timber table made by her husband, it’s hard to imagine you are sitting in a shop in Swan Hill’s main shopping strip, and not in Kaye’s own dining room.
Each night has a different cuisine under the spotlight. The night we visited was ‘Modern Israeli’ which had me very excited. After introductions, Kaye gets underway cooking the entrée of ‘Cigar Borek’, all of us eagerly looking on as we’re told about tips and tricks for when we attempt them back at home (each guest is given a set of recipes for the dishes cooked). “Don’t cook garlic too hot. It’s one of the most delicate seasonings out there,” Kaye explains as our drinks are topped up by hostess Sandra. Workmates from way back, Kaye was Sandra’s chef at Spoons Riverside for eight years before Spoons was sold. Kaye has worked hard to set up what essentially is a store stocked with hard to find (well, hard to find in a country town) ingredients, crockery and cookware, which line the walls, with a huge dining table and kitchen set up in the middle. As far as Kaye is aware, her store is one-of-a-kind and people from all over Victoria are travelling up to the Mallee to include a visit to Table for 12 with their group. Most bookings are groups of twelve people who already know each other, whether it be through work, sporting teams, friendship or family. The night I visit is one of the very few nights which has been made up from a mix of what are essentially randoms. And randoms are more than welcome. Kaye has a waiting list of people who are more than happy to fill the gaps when groups have to cancel or downsize.
As we move onto the main, guests are encouraged to participate as much as they like, with a number of my dining companions offering their assistance with stirring and preparing the different elements of our insanely amazing main course which has a rather unassuming name- Roast Chicken with Saffron, Hazelnuts and Honey. Salads and vegetable side dishes are also put together in front of our eyes, all of us madly writing down tips as Kaye works her magic. A recipe isn’t something that Kaye generally follows, preferring to go with what smells and tastes good as she works. However, for those keen foodie guests who wanted to recreate the dishes at home, this proved to be an issue. The menu for guests originally didn’t have the method, but Kaye soon realised that this was going to be essential for all the home cooks out there! Sandra works the table, filling our drinks, giving us little tips along the way on how to pour the perfect glass of bubbles (aim for your finger) and generally keeping us entertained with her good humour. Then dinner is served. There are three of each dish placed along the table- the idea being that groups of four share the food in front of them. You can take as much or as little as you like, but you are strongly encouraged by Kaye to try it all. For those who have never dined with strangers before, don’t be alarmed. It is actually a really cool experience on so many levels. How often in our adult lives do we need to actually share things that we want, with people we don’t really know? The last time I remember having to do that was back in primary school when I didn’t want to share the Clag with Amanda (and no, I wasn’t one of those kids who ate it. I just wanted to make sure my fish drawing was stuck down really good). How often are we pushed to make conversation with people that we don’t know, and sustain it for three hours? Not often enough are we forced to take an interest in anyone other than ourselves. How many people do we walk past on a daily basis that we might actually have something in common with, if we only stopped and took the time to start up a conversation? That kind of behaviour would warrant you a little bit crazy. However, sit around the table with people you’ve never met before, and there’s nothing weird about it. It really is true when people say that food can bring people together.
As we move on to the dessert course, Kaye explains about the products she makes during the week for sale in the shop as well. Salad dressings, relish, yo-yos, pies…. The pies. Let’s just stop there for a moment. As I work out of town (and aren’t organised enough) I miss out on the pies every Friday. However, if you do work in town and/or are more organised that me, you can order and collect yourself some of the freshly made pies that Kaye churns out every Friday. Anyway, back to the products. Everything that Kaye sources for the store are things that Kaye uses in her own cooking. If she doesn’t believe in it, she’s not going to expect others to either. Another thing that comes through strongly during the night is just how much value Kaye puts on ‘real-cooking’. Yes, it is all the rage at the moment (#jerf #eatclean #wholefoods #realfood are regular hashtags on ‘healthy’ foodie Instagram accounts) but this is something that Kaye has been believing in since she first could cook. “It’s all about knowing what you’re eating.” And nothing goes to waste either. “Use your peelings and vegetable offcuts for a vegie stock. Use whatever herbs you have in the fridge- don’t throw out a half bunch just because it’s not exactly what the recipe says. Play around with flavours.”
And playing around with flavours is exactly what dessert is all about. Anyone who has dined with me knows that I always look at the dessert menu first. If I could have it for every course at dinner I would (actually, I have, at Café Rosamond in Fitzroy… but that’s a story for another day). I will be the first to admit that I may have had more than my fair share of this dessert on the night we dined at Table for 12, but I wasn’t making any apologies. It was so damn freaking delicious!! Strawberry and Rose Mess made me think of the attempts I’ve made of the famous Eton Mess, made with crushed up store-bought meringues, whipped cream, berries and a sprinkling of chocolate flakes. Well, they are no match for Kaye’s version. A divinely soft and chewy hazelnut chocolate meringue is broken up and placed into bowls on top of strawberries (you get to construct the dish by yourself, under Kaye’s strict orders- trust me, follow them. It just wouldn’t taste the same if you didn’t). Then you top it with rosewater flavoured mascarpone and the kicker; sumac syrup. But it doesn’t stop there. You are then required to top it even further with pomegranate seeds and the strawberry sorbet that Kaye had made earlier. And then even more of the sumac syrup. Which sounds so weird but tastes so right with the berries and chocolate hazelnut flavours. And there you have it. Strawberry and Rose Mess- this dish name really doesn’t do the actual dish justice either. But that’s a little bit like Kaye- unassuming and just doing a really good job, because it’s what she loves to do. She is pleasantly surprised at how quickly the concept has taken off with local Swan Hill residents, and even more surprised with the interest from out of town.
If you haven’t had a chance to visit Table for 12 yet, make sure you take the time to pop in and check out all the goodies available to take home, and put your name down on the wait list. You won’t regret it.
Table for 12, 219 Campbell Street, Swan Hill 3585
Contact: 0497 841 234 or email@example.com