American comedian and actor Jerome Allen Seinfeld told us on his own TV sitcom never to tell him there was a ‘specials board’ at a restaurant because if the dishes were special they would be on the menu.
Perhaps there is truth in this, and if you look at the board at mOtherduck (note the clever use of the capital ‘o’ on their website) you will also miss what is particularly special about this quaint Goolwa cafe/restaurant in Cadell Street.
This is not a food review, so it has nothing to do with the part-owner and chef Melissa Howard’s personal favourite dish the Duck Caesar Salad or any other culinary delight. Mind you, the mOtherduck Dukkah and the Bucatini Pasta are to die for, and we dare not mention the wicked cakes.
The simple ingredients of this special are love and compassion. It’s about, in their humble way, having fostered 20 children over the past decade or so, including Lachlan, who currently resides with them and Melissa’s children Alana, Clare and Rory.
Lachlan has an intellectual disability; he’s a delightful and loving kid almost 13 with the
mental capacity of a six-year-old, and this amazing family in Goolwa treats him with respect as if he were their own.
There are a few times during the week you may see Lachlan diligently washing up dishes, or perhaps come eight o’clock in the morn arranging the outdoor tables and chairs for the day’s usual busy stream of customers. According to Melissa, it’s about work and life experience and helping him prepare for more challenging times ahead; particularly given the fact he cannot read.
Simon noted there were so many kids in Australia that had left their house. “We saw an ad in the local paper for an Aboriginal foster agency so we started with Aboriginal children for quite a few years,” he said.
“Like everything in life, we had a few good and bad experiences, but at the end of the day there was a reminder that none of us are perfect. It has been rewarding for both of us and as a family.”
Melissa believes fostering children has allowed them to become a lot more patient with behavioural issues and learning how to deal with them.
“We have had to do a lot of retraining… they come from such a broken family,” she said. “They come with a lot of trauma, and because of that they can react in different ways to things compared with a child from a normal background.
“Every child is different as to how they react so we have been constantly learning how to deal with these kids. We still do every day. It’s not just us, but Alana, Clare and Rory that have to welcome the kids into their house as well and share us with them. It’s hats off to them as well.
“Fostering children has helped us to see a different side of life. In many ways the rewards have been great.”
Simon said few people would realise just how many kids were out there in residential care and orphanages and needed people to look after them.
“Just at our agency, which is Life Without Barriers, there are 120 kids being looked after in special houses; some cases seven or eight in one big house with 24-hour rotation of people to look after them. They are high-end kids; the top few percent that can be trouble. We are lucky with Lachlan whose main issue is his intellectual disability; he is a beautiful natured kid.”
Melissa said it was not always easy not having previously tried to teach a child with an intellectual disability, and stressed the challenge was not theirs alone, but that of the community.
Given the obvious caring nature of Melissa, a qualified chef, and Simon, a building designer by profession, the title fits rather well with their restaurant.
The name actually stems from the early childhood days of Alana and Clare who always called their mum Mother Duck, and after weeks of trying to think of a name for the new business launched 12 months ago this month Clare came up with the obvious.
The caring connotation also reflects what they have poured into this business – Simon using his building expertise to turn this 1909 building into architectural splendour and creativity, and Melissa meticulously putting together a brilliant menu from her experience at other regional eateries to present what was much needed.
Simon agrees their background is an interesting combination for a cafe/restaurant, and the importance he placed on developing a stunning fit-out focusing on combining original materials and structure with a fresh approach is interesting.
“We always thought the restoration was important because businesses in some regional towns tend not to spend a lot on the look of the building, and consequently they may lack atmosphere,” Simon said. “We feel like we have created something and people come in and think we have been here for a long time.
“Atmosphere does not come by magic; sometimes you might be lucky to have a building that suits the situation. It’s all part of why people like to go out.”
Melissa’s culinary journey began like so many; watching and learning from her mum, Jan, in the kitchen as a youngster in their home at Manurewa, a southern suburb of Auckland, New Zealand.
Again with much humbleness, Melissa said she had always been driven by her passion for cooking and wanting her own restaurant ever since she came to South Australia as a 16-year-old kid.
“A lot of people with an idea for a business sit back and don’t follow their dream,” Melissa said. “We kept saying we would despite the expense; the risk. What if people don’t walk through the door? We asked. What if we don’t do this? At the end of the day we asked ourselves, are we going to do this or not?”
We hear of dreadful dealings adventurers face with potential landlords, but Simon and Melissa struck a gem; a woman who believed in them and saw the bigger picture and mutual benefit.
Importantly, Melissa knew what the area needed in terms of good wholesome eating, and that was the line they had taken. “We’re not fine dining,” she said. “Quality food, but in a more relaxed style.” A reviewer would suggest a change to fine cuisine at basic pub prices.
It was at this point of the conversation that Simon delivered the proverbial coup de grâce in terms of telling why mOtherduck was different to other restaurants. “We don’t own a deep fryer,” he said.
‘OMG’ is the usual reaction. And Melissa and Simon are also proud of employing 10 people full time or part-time.
The courage to be different grows with Melissa’s immediate plans to introduce – with the support of another full-time chef Nathan Sims – outback bush tucker. It is something she previously worked closely on at a former restaurant in Sellicks Beach.
“ I learned a lot about native berries and salts and things like that,” Melissa said. “We are starting to work a little bit down that path…. we’re getting in things like some kangaroo tail and quandongs. It’s something that our other chef Chelsea Robb is interested in too.
“I guess it’s about having another option on the new menu. People ask what is a quandong and we say it’s a native Australian peach. They try it, and love the experience; that’s what we are about. It’s bringing that awareness of a different food; it’s texture and flavour.
“We prepare food in so many different ways… creative fresh and healthy. I like to cater for a lot of different eating styles because there are lots of food allergies, or diet requirements around these days. As a dieter myself, I found it frustrating not being able to go out and pick something from a menu and walk out feeling like I haven’t stuffed myself and I need a sleep.
“It’s about making people feel they have made a really good choice about what they have selected and feel really good about themselves.
“I try to make the menu as healthy as possible. We have a paleo burger… and sure, there are also some things that are not as healthy; there are temptations. The idea is to offer them in moderation; offer a choice.”
The coffee from Proud Mary, a tiny shop in Collingwood, Melbourne, is a must, as are the micro boutique beers that Simon personally sources. “Someone has got to go to these places and try them,” he bemoans (not).
We’ll stop there because, as hard as it is not to dwell on what goes into making this place so pleasant, we said this wasn’t supposed to be a restaurant review. It’s about the love and care of different kind; something that you’ll never see on the specials board. Like the story book, it’s how we have always perceived Mother Duck; her kindness.