Wandering Cooks shows off its new produce-driven eatery in the heart of West End
Throughout its nine-year existence in South Brisbane, Wandering Cooks has played a pivotal role in fostering the talents of many nascent food-based operators. Beloved concepts like El Planta, Alphabet Cafe and Pie Town first found footing in the Wandering Cooks kitchens before striking out on their own, but now the heralded culinary nexus is forging a fresh identity with the official launch of its newfangled West End home. Wandering Cooks 2.0 sees the concept transitioning from incubator to a produce-driven eatery and bar, championing and showcasing quality harvest from local farmers via a menu of nutritious, flavourful and conversation-starting fare. Take a look inside …
Angela Hirst knew a move was on the cards for Wandering Cooks long before it happened. The founder and operator of the lauded nosh nurturer first embarked on a location scouting odyssey a few years back, seeking a suitable landing spot for the South Brisbane hub – once fertile ground for innovative ideation – before its home was redeveloped as part of Fish Lane’s ongoing metamorphosis. At the same time, Angela was simultaneously tweaking Wandering Cooks’ operation model. Where previously the incubator dedicated its kitchens to supporting enterprising artisans, caterers and hospitality hopefuls, it also engaged with local farmers as chief produce suppliers. Over time Angela found it increasingly difficult to unite both aspects – its kitchen occupants weren’t utilising the bounty available to them as much as Angela hoped, so, in a bold move, she shook up the model by uniting the venue’s tenants into one kitchen for an ingredient challenge. This new direction saw Wandering Cooks’ chefs formulating menus out of sustainable ingredients sourced directly and exclusively from its roster of featured farmers, seemingly striking a balance between nurturing talent and supporting growers. Then the pandemic struck. The resulting city-wide shutdown saw Brisbane’s food scene grind to a halt, with operators of conventional food businesses forced to pivot to survive. For Wandering Cooks, a decidedly unconventional concept with a relocation looming on the horizon, rolling with the punches wasn’t an easy process. During a period of downtime, Angela reckoned with her personal desires and previously held ideas for what Wandering Cooks was and what it could be. In September last year Angela stepped back into the kitchen for the first time in nearly a decade, overseeing the formulation and execution of the hub’s menu and, simultaneously, reigniting her passion for cooking. This spark, coupled with the recent shift away from its long-held incubator model, crystallised Angela’s vision for Wandering Cooks 2.0. The idea? To open a warm and welcoming restaurant and bar that fuelled entirely by locally grown farm-fresh produce. All she needed was a new space to set up shop.
Angela’s location search, which was previously burdened with the tall task of securing a sizeable home comparable to South Brisbane’s cavernous site, changed gears towards finding a space that could accommodate one kitchen instead of five. She quickly came across a promising site on Vulture Street in West End, a former supplements store that was now sitting vacant and empty – a blank canvas begging for some paint. Once secured, Angela and her team began the process of building new amenities from scratch using as much material pillaged from the previous Wandering Cooks site as possible. Kitchen equipment was collected and condensed into one fully equipped cookery, while furnishings and materials were repurposed for West End’s new industrial-inspired bar counter (equipped with the same beer taps), deli space and dining areas. Despite the thrifty approach to the build, Wandering Cooks West End (which boasts an estimated restriction-free capacity of 200 guests) feels lived in and complete. A street-facing beer garden (shielded by grape vines salvaged from South Brisbane) lures in passers by, while the building itself houses a deli and retail counter, lengthy bar, interior seating area, kitchen and upstairs function space. Out back sits another alfresco nook – perfect for group hangs removed from the noise of the bustling thoroughfare.
The offering at Wandering Cooks, as it relates to food, is shaped daily via an ongoing conversation between Angela and hot-shot head chef Ra. Relishing the opportunity to buck formal menu structure and circumvent strictures imposed by culinary categorisation, the duo are experimenting and indulging in spontaneous whims with the only limitation being seasonality. The main foundational pillar uplifting the menu is produce, which is sourced from a pool of 30-odd small-scale regenerative producers that contribute to a cornucopia of comestibles. Producers provide either a bounty of ingredients (like the carrots, leeks, corn, potatoes and capsicum from Sandy Creek or the herbs, pandan, tomatoes, chillies, jicama and shiso from Gatton’s Thai Hoa Growers) or a specialty item (like Dutch cream potatoes from Mt Cotton Organic Farm, Little Acre’s king brown mushrooms or pastured eggs from Tommerups Farm in Kerry) – everything is used in ways that maximise what is available. Angela and Ra focus on crafting dishes that foreground strengthening nourishment and robust flavour, adding depth and highlights via spice, heat, acidity and richness. Snacks like oat crackers with ricotta, pickled duck eggs and red wine beets, and polenta and cheese chips with green salsa and creme fraiche keep things light, but those after something heartier can opt for grain and noodle dishes. Blue corn totopos coated in cheese bechamel, pickled beetroot, roast cipollini and cauliflower, pork sambal with snake bean and pomelo salsa, and mapo bean curd and pork mince with radish, bok choy and white rice showcase some of the free-wheeling ingenuity on display. One major continuation from South Brisbane is the bar, which, like before, is stocked with local craft beer (Brouhaha, Slipstream and Helios are names that will be familiar to locals), Australian wine (including funky drops from Dormilona, Jauma and Latta Vino) and spirits from independent makers. Soon Wandering Cooks West End will relaunch its farm-gate market, where locals will be able to pick up produce and dry goods used across the menu.
Wandering Cooks is officially open to the public. Head to the Stumble Guide for more information.
The Stumble Guide is our comprehensive Brisbane dining guide with more than 2400 places to eat, drink, shop and play.