Generosity is a word you hear a lot when talking with those connected to new Bendigo restaurant Alium Dining. Owner Mark Brennan and his team are bringing a generosity of spirit to the table – along with quality local produce and wine – and a dedication to changing some of the things that have made hospitality such an inhospitable career for so many. The new establishment, headed up by chefs Jay Harkness and Daniel Treacy, aims to complement Bendigo’s thriving gastronomic scene with a collaboration over competition mindset, and is committed to supporting local producers and taking a creative approach.

In contrast to many restaurant owners, Mark has no background in food and hospitality. However, his successful career in engineering and as a defence contractor give him a fresh perspective on running a hospitality business and a desire to shake up entrenched ways of doing things. Being a successful engineering manager is not about knowing how to do everything, but about knowing how to bring the right people together in the right environment, allowing their creativity to shine through. In this way, Mark is engineering a restaurant that’s all about sharing knowledge and ideas, bringing people together to connect with good food and good company.

As a career, hospitality is often seen as a short-term, poorly paid, temporary option. Even at highly-regarded, high-end restaurants staff are often over-worked and under-paid (as recent scandals around high-profile chefs attest). There are numerous issues with poor mental health and insecure work in this sector – and the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of these workers even further. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and Alium Dining is all about valuing staff, lifting their skills and knowledge and investing in their development. One of the positive aspects of working in the high-pressure, high-stress world of hospitality is the sense of community and family that develops amongst ‘hospo crews’ – but why not build this sense of family through sharing positive experiences and collaboration, rather than sharing long hours and stress?

Mark explains that Alium has an education philosophy, with the restaurant creating a place for people to share knowledge. This means staff educating diners about the food and wine (and surprising them with creative dishes), while also learning from the knowledge that diners bring to the table, creating a shared experience around the sharing of food. It is a humble pursuit, rejecting the arrogance often found in ‘fine dining’, with an emphasis on being authentic and creative. One of the ways Mark is building the skills of staff is through close ties with local winemakers whose wine can be found on the menu at Alium Dining.

When John Monteath from Killiecrankie Wines in Ravenswood offered to give Alium staff a training session, Mark jumped at the chance. Why not learn about wines directly from the winemaker? “Wine can be a tricky beast”, says John – and snobbery around wine can make people feel uncomfortable talking about it. At Killiecrankie – where wines are made in the true garagiste style with hand plunged ferments, basket pressing and minimal intervention – they’re keen to share knowledge about the wine and the process, and John is happy to help Alium Dining’s staff feel more confident talking to customers about it. As a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, it’s important that people have a memorable experience when dining out and being able to talk about the story of what’s on your plate and in your glass is integral to this.

Wes Vine from Mandurang Valley says local winemakers have understood the value of collaboration for a long time – with everyone benefiting from the region’s reputation for quality wine and food – and hopes the UNESCO City and region of gastronomy title can continue to raise this profile and further drive cooperation. Building relationships is what it’s all about – and here’s where generosity comes up again – the willingness to take the time to get to know producers, chefs, waiting staff and customers and build a sense of community.

Recently, staff from Alium visited Wes’ vineyard at Mandurang Valley – going on a tour, learning about the winemaking process, tasting the full range of wines and finishing their day by sharing a BBQ and conversation. Wes was impressed by the intelligent questions put to him by staff and acknowledges that Mark’s different background is a great asset to the business, as he can apply techniques and marketing skills learned in industry (including an understanding of how important it is to be open and generous) and question the way things have always been done.

Engineers are good at pulling things apart to see how they work, then putting them back together in new and better ways. Looking at hospitality with fresh eyes, are there ways to overcome labour concerns, supply issues, training short-falls? Mark and the team are eager to find out, and while Covid-19 may have thrown a spanner in the works, they are excited by the opportunities and will emerge on the other side of the latest Stage 3 lockdown, keen to learn and share in Bendigo’s City of Gastronomy.

Words by Anna Knight