The little diners at the Helen Jessen Early Learning Centre in Strathdale are most likely oblivious to the fact their lunches are prepared by a French chef who traded in fine dining in Paris for a different kind of gastronomy in Bendigo.

Chatting with Fabien Laville at the early learning centre we talk about definitions of the word ‘gastronomy’, one of which is ‘the practice or art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food’. This points to the central role food literacy plays in bringing up the next generation of healthy-eaters, and while gastronomy can be about fine dining and expressing culture through food, it can also be about choosing, cooking, and eating healthy, nutritious (and delicious) meals. It is important to start this practice young, as it can have a lasting impact on our relationship to food and health.

Fabien with one of the diners at the Helen Jessen Early Learning Centre

As Fabien tells me, he has always been keen to explore different facets of food and cooking, and although he has been a chef in Melbourne and Paris – working in high-end establishments – that wasn’t the end of his ambitions. Fabien worked for many years in Michelin-starred Parisian restaurants, including a stint at the famous 200-year old Le Grand Véfour, but keen to expand his horizons, he and a friend chose Australia as a suitably exotic location to explore. After five years working in restaurants and the food industry (including working as the cook on a fishing boat!) in Australia (and meeting his wife), Fabien made the move to Bendigo – and has no plans to go anywhere any time soon. He and his young family have discovered the great lifestyle afforded by life in a regional city, and Fabien’s expertise and passion for good food is right at home in our City and region of Gastronomy.

Growing up in France, Fabien had a slightly different experience of school meals than most Australian children. In France, the midday meal in the cantine (less like a canteen and more like a cafeteria) is a daily sit-down meal where healthy, fresh food is served to all the children. Ingredients are generally local, and meals are prepared on site daily. It might sound simple, but it creates an important culture around food from the start. Although there is growing awareness around healthy school meals, many children in Australia grow up with limited access to a balanced, nutritious daily meal.

Something in the oven smells good!

Fabien is bringing some of that ethos to his work at the early learning centre, where he focuses on creating a simple, fresh, nutritious main meal every day. It is cooked at the centre and although Fabien says it’s nothing fancy, he does see it as an occasion for the children to try out new things and experiment with different dishes and vegetables that they might not encounter at home.

This work to bring healthy, fresh food onto the every day menu of the next generation is one small piece in the puzzle of creating a healthier community. In other parts of the city and region, the Grow, Cook, Share program aims to improve the quantity, quality and variety of fresh produce available to Central Victorians and provide people with confidence and skills to prepare healthy meals at home. In partnership with community organisations, Bendigo Foodshare and community gardens, cooking clubs have been established to support our community to prepare their own tasty and healthy food on a tight budget. Such initiatives are a vital part of reconnecting with, and making more accessible, the idea of affordable and healthy meals cooked and shared together.

Preparing some afternoon tea

When he’s not whipping up a nutritious lunch for the little ones, Fabien is teaching a course in commercial cookery at Bendigo TAFE, and has previously worked as head chef at Edwards Providore, another local business putting local produce first. Our city and region of gastronomy is made up of such diverse talents and backgrounds, and so many people passionate about good food, that no doubt the children from Helen Jessen Early Learning will grow up appreciating the simple goodness of food made with care, a healthy dose of seasonal vegetables…and perhaps a little je ne sais quoi.

Words by Anna Knight