Its not without irony that a crucial part of what attracted me to the Red Velvet Lounge in the first place was the mighty wood fired oven and more specifically, the notion of cooking with such a primordial element, fire.
I viewed this archaic oven as a conduit to a new chapter in my working life and in the process, re-connecting me to the wonder and possibilities of what being a cook meant back before life got in the way and everything got so serious.
Viewing this oven as a ticket to re-inventing myself from the jobbing chef with what I had considered a fairly unremarkable career albeit with a few exceptions here and there but also lurking I suspect was a motive to re-calibrate my own professional cringe at the industry choices I had made over the last three decades.
Looking broadly I could say my whole life could be punctuated by the leit-motif of flames and here are a few examples.
My first memory of dancing flames, smoke and heat was of our rusted 44 gallon drum, the weapon of choice for the legions of suburban rubbish burners, ‘the incinerator’. Its menacing name was seemingly at odds when it was not in use. In fact weeds and flowers poked up through its metal fatigued holes and perforated edges. Sometimes Nero our black kelpie would sniff and dig around its edges, his nose alerted to some un-burnt morsel and even Ginger Meggs our cat was known on occasion to curl up for a nap inside where flames had danced.
However, when it was in use it was a very different beast indeed.
Dad used to stack as much as he could into its girth and as the flames caught, he would stoke it like an engineer might a steam trains firebox. The radiant heat would wilt the grass and sometimes the soursops would even hiss as their moisture bubbled and evaporated with a pop. I could almost hear it gasp as the oxygen was drawn into the base and the fire above blasted like a forge.
One particular arvo using the incinerator, dad being fully ‘refreshed’ with homebrew, conspiratorially whispered his yeasty breath into my ears, ‘Watch this’ and with an accurate lob, all the more impressive considering his afternoons imbibing, arced an empty spray can right into the fire.
He had barely enough time to push my mop of hair down as the shrapnel pieces from the exploded canister fizzed past our ears with the mightiest of booms.
We both turned and smiled at each other.
‘Don’t tell mum’ he smiled through the mimed words just as Mum hurried down the back steps to see what had happened.
Wow, fire is amazing I thought at the time.
During a particularly bitter winter one year we were all huddled in our little living room warmed by a stout and shiny kerosene heater, its flames visible through the small round holes at its base. I must’ve been about seven or eight as my little sister was just a slip. Getting up to collect something, I managed to trip on the hem of my oversized dressing gown, which bought my entire thigh in contact with its surface. I can still remember how much it hurt and crying myself to sleep that evening after a visit to the emergency ward. I had been branded, my wound would take months to subside and understood wholly what fire could was capable of.
At the back of that same cottage in Kew, was a kind of common area shared with houses in our street that led a to a large open drain lined with bluestones. Every year when the rains poured and the water level rose from trickle to at times, a torrent, our neighbors and ourselves would toss any old rubbish into it and watch it disappear past our fence lines and into the large dark abyss of the underground pipe opening.
In our first year living there and not yet accustomed to the neighborly ritual, dad took the initiative and enlisting my help, pushed an old car wreck at the base of our land into the fast flowing drain. It vanished in a flash and made a hell of a clutter at it thrashed its way into and down the underground tunnel.
A neighbor across the drain raised his can of beer in silent appreciation of dads industriousness. It was a different time back then.
In the drier months, me and a mate would traverse the drain on weekends, sometimes crawling for kilometers underground until one time we ended up at the Yarra across from the golf course and with the towers of Willesmere looming.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized exactly how dangerous these expeditions were when the nightly news seemed to be regularly reporting the drowning deaths of boys through similar misadventures in those dank tunnels.
It’s difficult to imagine just how awful one’s last moments might’ve been in that cramped space flooded by putrid water. Sometimes I wonder how some of us got through childhood and our teenage years with all that risk taking.
People say that insulating children from risky play or boundary testing behavior prevents them from developing into rational decision making adults capable of assessing the dangers that life can present.
I would say from my experience that exposure to risk taking could actually motivate someone to keep rolling the dice and continue to push their luck and as the law of averages proves, eventually luck runs out.
Back to the open drain. Beyond where it was swallowed into the ground by the cavity of the aforementioned tunnel, was a scrubby bit of land with the usual junk, car wrecks and overgrown vegetation. These days it would’ve been turned into a Skate park by do-gooders but back then it was known as a tip by everything else but name.
Me and my mate would ride our dragsters around its environs and assemble gathered detritus into rudimentary jumps in which we would try to emulate Evil Kenevel.
Eventually the lure of smoking ciggys wafted into our realm and after scabbing a few off his older brother on day we pedaled furiously toward our tip and amongst the mounds of clay, the weeds and the stones puffed awkwardly and pig-sucked the menthols.
Being a wheezy asthmatic my dalliance with smokes was always going to be short lived and so my attention turned to matches whilst my mate continued to puff.
After becoming quite adept at flicking lit matches toward my mate who would swat them away like the Ninja he thought he was, my attention turned toward a new target, a large thatch of dry scrub nearbye.
The first match hit the target, rested on its side and then burnt slowly down until it petered out emitting a curling trail of smoke.
The second match also hit the target but also managed to combust some of the dry vegetation into a little baby fire. My friend beamed at my new prowess with the matches, the two of us, a formidable Ninja team, he with the moves and me with the matches. We were too busy congratulating ourselves to see that the baby fire had grown into a teenager within seconds.
In less than a minute the fire had now spread to surrounding bushes and before we could scramble to our feet, the wind had arrived and the fire hitched a ride.
I was shitting myself as I saw how quickly it spread. Quickly, large plumes of smoke expanded and rose in dirty black clouds as the flames spread even further.
My heart went cold as I realized that all the fences that bordered this land could easily catch fire and then maybe burn people’s houses down.
Panicking now, I ran up to the closest fence that happened to have a doorway in it, pushed my way through and ran up to the back door banging hard to get someone’s attention.
An surprised elderly man opened the door and after glancing at me, his attention was drawn to the smoke behind his fence line.
‘Somebody’s lit a fire‘ I squealed, my arm involuntarily pointing toward the fence.
‘Was that somebody you?!’ he asked angrily before I burst into tears and ran off through the fence.
We pedaled home hard and in the distance I could hear the fierys making their way toward the call out and I felt like vomiting.
When I arrived at Cygnet on the night of the RVL fire, a similar feeling in my stomach revisited itself once again. My family and my second family, the staff and friends, huddled arm in arm, their tear streaked cheeks illuminated dramatically by the pulsing red lights of the fire appliances.
The weary firefighters, all of them volunteers and people who make up most of the tradespeople of our town, rested by the fence, their protective clothing smeared with the grime of fire and water.
These are the people who risk their own lives to save people and property and I can’t thank them enough not just for saving the building and my business from total destruction but also just for doing this job.