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A CHAT with Eleena and Michael Tan from The Reading Room Cafe about their Pop up for Charity

Submitted by on April 8, 2012 – 11:57 am28 Comments

Gaaassshh!  “Hey, let’s go down to Footscray for some amazing French Toast at…Vic Uni?!” I thought the day would never come when I’d mutter those precious words. For as long as I can remember, there have only been three main reasons why I’d do The Hustle down to my neighboring hood Footscray: the Pho (of course), sweet balls of sweet fire at Olympic Doughnuts and to leave behind a trail of bread crumbs after biting  into the best Banh Mi in town from Nhu Lan Bakery. But listen here, listen here my friends…now it’s time to add a 4th star to the hall of local fame: The Reading Room Cafe. Dun Dun DUN! *music stops*

I have a passion for helping local communities and volunteering that you may have read about in previous posts, so it wasn’t just the promise of Sensory Lab’s Chompy or Siphon coffee so close to home or the opportunity to try out their infamous BFG that allured me there – though admittedly, it did help, especially with Chef Ingo Meissner (ex St Ali and Fitzrovia) at the helm. I’ve since come back twice including a brunch date with Sarah, Agnes and crew.

Whilst I hunkered down on the fig and prosciutto laden Fellini’s Understudy – and generously sized mind you – I had super fun chat with young guns and passionate owners of The Reading Room Cafe,  Eleena and Michael Tan about their Pop up for Charity project, pursuing dreams, our similarities, what they like to cook at home and their newly formed weekend menu that I’ve since come back for again!

Check out the Q & A after the jump:

an interview with Eleena and Michael

Left to right: Michael Tan, me and Eleena Tan

Tell us about Pop Up for Charity. How did the idea of helping the local community through your love of food come about?

Café and community go hand in hand and in Melbourne, its quite common to have a great café in residential areas which become a meeting point and place to gather. We found that the Footscray and the West area lacked a café like this so we decided to launch weekend breakfast showcasing specialty coffee, high quality brunch in a comfortable environment where you could catch up with friends.

In order to launch our idea we decided that we should begin by giving back to the community first, as a way of engaging and acknowledging the role of small business in local communities and the powerful effect they can play. People in Melbourne love a good cause and good food – so being able to eat for a cause seemed like a fun way to get the community involved as well as raise awareness of local needs and initiatives.

coffee at the reading room cafe

You have an eclectic menu fit with quirky names for each of the dishes including the delicious BFG (French Toast) that comes with candied walnuts. What are some of your favourites and the inspirations behind their names?

Everything on the menu is our favourite…..its what we love to eat when dining out in Melbourne! If I had to choose it would be Fritters Lane, Crackle and Pop , The BFG and Frenchman’s Burger!

The names have come from favourite books we have read (BFG by Roald Dahl), favourite bits of the dish we like (Crackling) and things that it reminds us off (chicken in France was AMAZING and this burger….reminded us of that)

Fellini's Understudy

Above: Fellini’s Understudy

In addition serving breakfast to lunch, what people may not know is that you also do a High Tea! What are some of the savoury and/or sweet morsels one may find on their tier?

Like everything in life the High Tea Tier is all about balance! There are two savoury items and four sweet treats. The tier platter is based on the whims and mood of our resident chef Ingo Messiner and the nagging of Eleena’s current obsession. At the moment its Lemon & Passionfruit Curd Tart (since Eleena’s home garden has an abundance of them), Chocolate Marquise (cross between delectable chocolate brownie and scrumptious chocolate mousse), Mini Carrot and walnut Cakes and of course lemonade scones with homemade berry jam and whipped cream. To keep Michael happy we have put on the tier homemade sausage rolls (Michael’s childhood favourite – a little bit fancier than the school canteen) and chicken and tarragon mini roll!

afternoon tea at reading room cafeAn Afternoon Tea Set – lemonade scones!

oldskool typewriter at reading room cafe

How did you both get into the hospitality industry and what made you choose the westside to pursue your dreams of opening up a cafe?

Eleena worked for Salvatore Malatesta at Plush Fish Melbourne University and since that time was mentored by him and as a result choose a career in hospitality rather an accounting. Eleena has completed both large scale food concepts (Antica Gelateria, Austin Hospital Food Precinct, RMIT Food Court) and small scale ones such as Reading Room or involved with projects such as the Sensory Lab development. Michael worked for ad agencies Grey Worldwide & JWT in the digital and interactive space, and after meeting Eleena transferred his skills set to the food industry – using his creative edge to create a niche brand in the market.

Michael and I went to Melbourne University and our fondest memories of Uni life were the cool food eateries that we spent time at – Caffeine and Plush Fish Sushi Bar. Since then we have done a number of ventures in the University context and it is always the same response…..”we are so glad to have some great coffee and food on campus”. Truth is why should great food and coffee be left on the High street. Universities are a community within themselves and have right and need for great cafés. When the opportunity arose to be part of the project to change the food landscape at Victoria University, we jumped at the chance!

inside reading room cafe

When you’re not busy plating up meals at the cafe, what do like cooking at home?

Michael and I come from a Malaysia Chinese background, and like all good asian families, we are obsessed with food. So we love to learn secret recipes to make the perfect curry and the correct angle to flip Roti Chanai. Our recent travels in Europe, in particularly Italy, have made us crave the fresh produce and simple italian cooking – so we love making our own pizza dough and trying out new creations and incorporating different italian cheeses into salads, antipasto and pastas!

the BFG at reading room cafe

Above: The BFG Take 1 which then became my BFF the second time I ate it

What comes next?

We also run a food consulting business called BrandWorks – that helps individuals or small business refine or launch a food concept. We are currently working with clients who are going to be launching honest Vietnamese street food fare called “Roll’d”, featuring the delights of Pho, Rice Paper Rolls, Salads, Baguettes and Vermicelli. A new site located in the ‘sleepy end of town’ is currently in the pipelines, hopefully to open Spring 2012, with a offering that draws on a wealth of unique culinary experience and traditions, encapsulating wonderful philosophies we came across during a travels overseas.

Thank you

Eleena and Michael, thank you so much for taking some time out of your busy schedules to take me through your inspiring venture and your cool projects ahead.

Cap Off

The Reading Room Cafe for me, has so much potential to do big things. It may be tucked away within the confines of Victoria Uni, but like many other Melbourne gems that are hidden away from prying eyes, so long as they keep smashing it away with their deliciously unique menu, coffee and personable service not too mention a cleverly themed fitout, the people will continue to come.  If I were you, I’d head in there now before queues start forming!

During the warmer days, it would be great of there was more outdoor seating but may just be the university rules around how much space the cafe can take outside. I gave some feedback when I first dined at Reading Room  – that it would also be great if they provided a daily newspaper in addition to the novels on the bookshelves as like many others, I prefer to read newspapers/magazines in cafes which they have done since! Thanks for taking on board my feedback guys!

I hope this movement toward giving back to the community through great food continues in Melbourne.

water bottle at reading room cafe

I swear this is filled with water…

banana bread at reading room cafeSarah’s brilliantly presented  Banana Bread

corn fritters at reading room cafeAgnes’ generously sized corn fritters with smashed avo and a brightly tinged poached egg


The Reading Room Cafe
Building P, Ground floor
Victoria University {Footscray Park campus}
Open: Mon-Fri 7:30am-7pm
Sat & Sun 8am-6pm

TIP: Park at Hoadley Court (just off Ballarat Road). Enter the university via gate 2, keep to your left and follow the signs towards Building P

Tel. 0413 842 690

Check out the following fab blog posts on this kick ass cafe:

Ms Ihua

My Food Trail

The Hungry Excavator

Gourmet Chick

The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar

Food Rehab was invited to the launch of the Pop up for Charity and dined as a guest but paid for subsequent visits

If you’re not already signed up for updates from Food Rehab, get on the list and I’ll do my best to keep us learning about none-other than glorious, GLORIOUS food! Also, follow me on Facebook or Twitter if you have either of those addictive things.

Keep eating,


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