"I see a lot of food trends in Melbourne," says Bangkok-born Sutinee Suntivatana, co-owner of Humble Rays cafe in Carlton. "There's hot pot, noodle houses, Korean barbecue – but there wasn't any congee."
Throughout 2019 Suntivatana was looking for a location to open a shop specialising in jok, Thailand's much-loved rice porridge. She was in negotiations to sign a city lease when COVID-19 put everything on hold.
The queue outside her existing cafe disappeared and she was left supporting 10 staff, all ineligible for JobKeeper. Suntivatana pulled the pin on her brick-and-mortar store and launched Jok Club instead – a delivery service that provides staff with working hours and Melburnians with comfort during the lockdown.
"If I signed the lease I'd be totally broke," she says. "I know everyone's running out of savings, and so am I, but it's okay, that's life. No one expected COVID to happen this year; it's all over the world. You can't wait for government to help you all the time, you have to just do it."
"In Asian countries, congee is a comfort meal."
Sold by street vendors all over Thailand, Jok Club offers five varieties of jok. These include pork ball and liver, braised pork belly, chicken and century egg, veg-friendly mushroom and tofu and the best-selling sticky beef short rib with ginger, spring onion, toasted sesame and a custardy onsen egg.
"It's local that want to try it. We have quite a few regular customers who are tradies who order congee, which surprised me. And of course, Asian students that live in the area and CBD – some are ordering two or three days a week," says Suntivatana.
Suntivatana moved to Melbourne in 2006 to study cookery at Holmesglen Institute, which now partners with Le Cordon Bleu. She went on to work at the Grand Hyatt and then at now-closed Union Dining under chef Nicky Riemer. When her father passed away, Suntivatana returned to Bangkok for a few years. There she ran a restaurant and private cooking classes with her partner, but Bangkok no longer felt like home.
"I just felt like I loved Melbourne more, I don't know why," she says. "There's so much variety of food and culture, and I love the brunch cafe culture here."
At the end of 2016, Suntivatana opened Humble Rays on Bouverie Street. The idea for a jok concept came from a duck congee dish on the menu that was an unexpected hit. Suntivatana's plan was to serve Melbourne-style brunches to tables overflowing with eggs and croissants, but her customers fell in love with congee, eager to eat something that was harder to find elsewhere.
"In Asian countries, congee is [a] comfort meal. People can have it in the morning or for dinner. When we got the pandemic, it was like, okay, we must keep going," says Suntivatana. "If you open something you give more jobs to people as well, and the economy will improve. I believe whoever lives in the city; we just have to help each other and make this city liveable again."
Via the LINE and EASI apps, or call (03) 8354 8459 to place an order for pick up between 8am and 4.30pm daily. Delivery is available within a 5-kilometre radius of Humble Rays