Baba's Place is located in Sydney's Marrickville, but its culinary influences stretch far beyond its inner-west postcode. Its kitchen has dished out everything from Japanese shokupan with Greek taramasalata to Macedonian kolbas sausages with an Armenian-inspired sour cherry sauce. There's a Northern Chinese version of spaghetti Bolognese, too.
If you can't narrow down the menu to one specific cuisine, that's exactly the point.
Sure, the business is named after co-owner Alexander Kelly's Macedonian grandmother, but Baba's Place wants to challenge the idea that your cultural background defines what you eat. "On one hand, it's straight-up exotification, that's what it is. I don't think exotification is helpful," he says. Yes, he grew up with her cooking him kolbas and eggs for breakfast, but she also loved to make chicken schnitzel and fried rice as well.
Co-owner and head chef Jean-Paul El Tom, who previously worked with Kelly at Butter, also has a similar experience. "Growing up in Sydney, I wouldn't eat traditional Lebanese food," he says. "I think the major inspiration [on Baba's Place] is growing up as a first-generation Aussie in the suburbs."
A good example of this is the rakija that's used to spike the signature sour cherry cola. "I believe it roughly translates to rocket fuel," Kelly says, describing the Eastern European spirit his dedo (Macedonian grandfather) would make with squashed and fermented grapes.
"It roughly translates to rocket fuel."
"You could spin around and point your finger and I'm pretty sure some house in southwest Sydney is making rakija in their backyard," he says. "It's supposed to be celebrated with friends, it's also supposed to have a strong medicinal element to it. My baba would put it on my cuts."
Kelly remembers the time she applied it to a rash on his back.
"But it was actually shingles and she made it a million times worse," he says and laughs. "I don't think rakija cures everything, but my baba still believes it."
Rakija can be found far beyond Macedonia – as can many items on the menu. The Macedonian shopska is a good example of this. "That's pretty much a Greek salad," says Kelly. Sous-chef and co-owner James Bellos (who, incidentally, has Greek roots) has remixed it with grapefruit and sesame seed praline, but the template is essentially the same.
It's a similar story for the ajvar that adds a roasted capsicum blast to Baba's Place's BLT sandwiches and a goat's mousse and deep-fried focaccia dish.
"I think Croatia claims it [ajvar], but everyone makes it. It's a relish," says Kelly.
"We had it at soccer fields when we used to play against Macedonian teams," says El Tom.
"I personally believe that most people’s first exposure to Eastern European [food] comes through football clubs," says Kelly.
El Tom says, "It's funny because what is traditional food, to people in expat countries, is whatever made it on the plane with the people, and what stayed in their heads and their suitcases.
"So if you go to Greece, you'll find [Lebanese] toum very easily, but Greeks aren't known for making toum…Tabbouleh is Lebanese, but Turkish people make it, Cypriot people make it, Armenian people make it."
Immigration – like food – has a way of dissolving borders, and that’s an attitude that reigns at Baba's Place.
"It's pretty hard to compartmentalise any food in the world, let alone food that came from post-WWII migrants in Australia. I think there’s heaps of overlaps," says El Tom. Think of kozinjak, the Macedonian sweet bread that's been on Baba's Place's menu.
"I mean the Greeks make that bread, the Lebanese make that bread, it's like an Easter bread – tsoureki," he says.
"It's like a challah," adds Kelly.
Baba's Place might reflect the multicultural way people eat across Sydney, but some dishes are sparked by direct overseas experiences. El Tom added a sour cherry flavour to his Lebanese kafta after trying a similar Armenian dish in Dubai. His plans for ghee-laminated pizzas are inspired by journeys to his mum's village in Lebanon. "We used to stop off at a place that made these specific meat pizzas," the chef says. Then there's the Lebanese Filet-o-Fish: it merges his favourite burger at McDonald's with Lebanese samke harra (spicy fish), a dish his father would make at home.
"You can go up and down the coast of Lebanon, which is literally so small, and it can completely change. Tripoli and the port cities up north, they’re the ones that introduced tahini to it. But if you go south, Beirut, the dish completely changes, but it's called the same thing," he says. "My dad spent a lot of his time in those port cities and he was eating that."
El Tom's version is served on a potato bun, and although he uses the traditional shatta (chilli paste) to dial up the firepower, "people get angry with me". He points out that "harra in Arabic means spicy", but the addition of tahini – which is true to the Tripoli original – can mute the feisty chilli intensity. Some kids easily eat tahini-dolloped samke harra back in Tripoli – despite the warnings conveyed by its "spicy fish" name.
The smoky, garlicky punch of El Jannah, Sydney's beloved Lebanese charcoal chicken joint, influences Baba's Place chips: they're sprinkled with fried chicken skins, sumac and a toum salt that’s cranked up with fermented-garlic caramel flavours. "That's a mission to make," says the chef. The pay-off is clear, though: Baba's Place earned a 10/10 scorecard from the Hot Chip Guy Instagram account, who placed the eatery in its top 3 Sydney rankings for hot chip excellence.
Northern Chinese spaghetti Bolognese might seem like a leftfield menu item for Baba's Place, but it's sparked by the team's love for Sydney's noodle houses: Burwood's Xi Bay for Kelly, and Hurstville's Shang Lamb Soup for El Tom, who grew up in the area's Chinatown. This recipe is presented with hand-pulled noodles, a prawn and bacon XO-style sauce and "a ball of smoked koji" that's grated like Parmesan on top.
"We're looking for a sifu, noodle-master, either to make these or train us [in hand-pulling dough]," says Kelly.
It's a dish they'll be adding to the dine-in restaurant menu, which they're finalising.
Baba's Place has previously operated as a pop-up, but it opened its permanent eatery in June ("we literally finished construction [when] lockdown happened," says El Tom), which means it's mainly operated in takeaway mode in its current Marrickville location.
With lockdown restrictions lifting, Baba's Place will now focus on its dinner menu and adapting to new trading conditions. "The restaurant will be open for a few weeks, maybe a month, and then the takeaway will come back in its newer form – there might be breakfast, there might be Turkish coffee," says Kelly.
And while the dishes keep changing (the bestselling Lebanese Filet-o-Fish is currently on hiatus, but might return), what's constant is the multicultural culinary landscape of Sydney – from Hurstville to Bankstown – and how it shapes what they do.
"We're inspired by good memories of food," says El Tom.