WORDS BY LARINE STATHAM
Jennifer Cameron’s smile immediately puts you at ease. She has an understated elegance that is reflected across every aspect of Water Street Kitchen.
What looks like a simple corner store from the outside is a salubrious, modern Australian eatery.
As soon as you walk in the front door, the busy street feels like it’s another world away.
No detail is overlooked. Posies of white roses casually rest in sparkling glass vases. Pear scented candles flicker gently.
Despite being one of the Bundaberg Region’s most celebrated restaurants, there is nothing pretentious here.
Their black and white menu is an eclectic mix of Asian flavours, Italian pastas and the kind of wholesome traditional English food your mum made when you were young – only better! Every morsel is worth savouring.
It’s hard to believe that Head Chef Alex Cameron could barely cook two-minute noodles when he decided to throw away his career as an electrical engineer to start a culinary apprenticeship.
“I worked as a dishy at a small Brisbane pub while I was at uni and one night a chef quit, so I had to cook the fish. I liked it and they offered me a job,” Alex said.
“When I told mum, she laughed at me because I didn’t cook at all, but I hated what I was doing.”
I wasn’t afraid of hard work, I was just afraid of it failing but you just keep working so it doesn’t fail.
It was that fateful turn of events that eventually led Alex to Fraser Island where he met his wife, Jen.
“I had been studying tourism and decided to go Fraser to see if I liked the industry – I didn’t,” Jen laughed.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. There wasn’t a lot of phone reception over there so no one could ask me. I just wanted to revel in that for a little bit.”
Alex worked his way up through the dining venues at King Fisher Bay Resort, before joining Seabelle Restaurant.
“We kind of had to grow up a bit at that point – stop drinking as much, and iron our uniforms,” Alex joked.
It’s clear from Alex’s happy-go-lucky nature that he enjoys what he does.
Alex and Jen returned to Brisbane, where Jen worked in accounting firms and Alex continued to hone his craft at venues like Watt at Brisbane’s Powerhouse and the Normanby Hotel.
Alex said they “were doing everything to build the resume and earn money”, and never imagined they’d one day own their own restaurant.
“To us, at that age, restaurants were owned by people that were elusive. They came and went,” Jen agreed.
You can’t help but like Alex and Jen, and admire their tenacity. In three short years, they’ve built Water Street Kitchen from the ground up.
After the birth of their daughter Sofie, they started talking about moving to Bundaberg.
“I wasn’t so sure,” Jen explained.
“Being from Bundy, I really did love the city but we wanted to do something for ourselves.
“We put an offer in on a building; just dipping our toes in to see what would happen. It fell through, but by that point we had the taste for it.”
The pair started looking for a venue in earnest.
“I remember sitting on the couch on the Gold Coast with Sofie, talking to my parents on speaker phone. Alex was all in, and Dad told me: ‘you’ve got to be all in too kiddo, because this is going to be hard’,” Jen said.
“I wasn’t afraid of hard work, I was just afraid of it failing but you just keep working so it doesn’t fail.”
They began a mobile lunch service from 85 Water Street in Walkervale.
The run down building previously housed a catering business, and was being used for storage. The attached house had tenants and the kitchen was “an equipment graveyard”.
“We’d put the food out through the back door, into our cars and deliver to corporate offices,” Alex said.
“When we first got to town, I thought we’d be delivering sandwiches for a few years.”
Jen said their Friday afternoon long lunches at Fairymead House were popular, but businesses started requesting a confidential meeting space.
“We’d set up a beautiful table at Water Street in a space that was pretty gross and dodgy, but they loved it.”
Jen paints a picture that resembles something like a scene from a Mob film. A rough warehouse setting, with a perfectly decorated table in the centre. White linen table cloth. Polished cutlery and glassware. Incredibly good red wine and hearty, yet refined food.
The restaurant has since been beautifully renovated and comfortably seats 50 people.
Jen admitted that being in business was exceptionally challenging.
“Alex knew how to run a kitchen and I knew how to work the front, but we’d never had to pay the bills before, employ staff or do the admin,” she said.
“People see success and associate luck with that because they don’t see the amount of failures that happened to make that success. Failure is the best lesson you can learn.
“The need to impress is what eggs me on, because our customers are often people I’ve grown up around. It’s been nice getting to know the local farmers and using their produce on our menus. I just want it all to be beautiful.
“It’s intimidating, because you’re out there and on show in the public eye and subject to peoples’ opinions. That’s probably the hardest part.”
Alex said they’d put all of their past experience, in what is a notoriously tough industry, to good use.
People see success and associate luck with that because they don’t see the amount of failures that happened to make that success.
“Watching owners and managers and seeing the things they did well and the things we didn’t want to repeat,” Alex said.
“We were treated like this, so we want to treat our staff that way. Our staff are the most valuable asset.”
No longer living onsite, Alex and Jen dare to dream.
“Now that we’ve finished renovating our home, it’s only natural to start thinking about what’s next,” Jen confessed.
“We don’t know how far Water Street is going to get. We see a need for expansion.
“We just need it to continue to grow the way it always has.
“We don’t really like standing still.”