Greetings, folks. For this month’s Locals by Locals we’re dialing in from Marrickville with a local’s perspective on one of Sydney’s most eclectic and endlessly surprising suburbs — straight from the ravenous mouth of Jean-Paul El Tom, head chef and co-owner of the buzzing Baba’s Place.
With humble beginnings as a pop-up back in 2019 (at Rolling Penny, Newtown, CBD bar PS40, and Bush in Redfern) the Baba’s warehouse has, after a mere 1.5 years, emerged as a certified Inner West institution. El Tom, alongside fellow culinary entrepreneurs Alex Kelly, Chef James Bellos (and a mutually supportive team) have used the restaurant environment as a space to retell, celebrate and nurture the story of multicultural Australia. From the suppliers, to their produce, the menu, to the venues’ interior detailing and supercharged soundtrack — Baba’s is an homage to Sydney’s suburban communities, from every angle; palatably, sensorily and tangibly so.
It’s this forward thinking yet nostalgic and experimental attitude that draws us to Baba’s, and consequently, to Jean Paul — who better to give us the low down on the inner west and its cultural quirks than a guy who’s dedicated his entire business to it?
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
P.S Scroll on down to the end to get to his top hit list
TOCH: Describe Marrickville to someone who’s never been before.
JP: Marrickville has an old, industrial soul which has been dragged into the present by way of Sydney’s counterculture and underground music scene. It is the perfect balance of resourceful, chaotic and nurturing…
TOCH: What about the area allowed for you, personally, and then Baba’s Place, to flourish?
JP: Along with that industrial past, Marrickville has a rich immigrant history. What began with post war immigration from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, has now extended to the Asiatic diaspora (I mean, look at my top 2 food spots!) The area has a palpable nostalgia, coupled with a sense of community and innovation which really makes us feel like we are out west… but you’re only 15-20 mins from the CBD.
TOCH: How has your upbringing influenced your perspectives on food and hospitality?
JP: Well firstly, my parents loved to cook. And not only cook but also forage for hyper seasonal ingredients, either in the markets of Sydney or quite literally in the hills of Kousba in Lebanon. They always tried new things and now so do I! Their genuine love for cooking was born out of selflessness and so this selfless energy was a big part of my upbringing. I believe that giving people more makes me happy BUT… finding the right balance is often a difficult task in a professional hospitality environment.
“ All of the migrants and our family members who taught us how to love through food and service. Using food as one way to provide a momentary reprieve from the potential trauma(s) that made them move halfway across the world to start a new life. Those same teachings are what we try to bring to all the guests that come in. Let’s get through this shit together… and with a full stomach.”
TOCH: What have you discovered so far about your own history, family and local neighbourhood (Marrickville/Sydenham) since the restaurant was established?
JP: How indebted we are to our immigrant history — i.e. what we call “community” and what Sydney decides to be “cool” I
The fact that Marrickville quite literally makes everything and anything. There’s welders next to light manufacturers next to beer producers. It’s crazy.
How low planes can get to buildings while landing.
TOCH: As Baba says, “it gets hot in the suburbs,” — describe your perfect summer’s day in the Inner West?
JP: First — Wake up with the sun cascading in through my double glazed windows. Chuck the UE Boom on.
Second — Stare into the eyes of my son Anchovy for at least 5-10 mins to see if we can communicate (he is a cat), while I sip on my instant coffee, an iced oat latte.
Third — Do a reformer sesh, then a quick trip to the Dawn Fraser baths with [Chef, friend and co-owner] James Bellos.
Then — Arvo drink at Wildflower with [co-owner and brand/art director] Alex Kelly (if he’s free and if they’re open) and pick up a few bottles for later “perfect” days.
Finally — Cook a nice dinner for my sister Joy-Della (our Restaurant Manager) and her partner Alberto Ferretti (an amazing artist) as the sun goes down in, sipping on a Rakija and Tonic (we make these in a can) and smoking at the dinner table pretending I am on the Mediterranean sea.
TOCH: Favourite hidden gem in the Inner West?
JP: Al Hassan Supermarket
TOCH: Heritage, tradition and experimentation are at the core of Baba’s Place. How do you take risks, create new experiences whilst still respecting and nourishing the cultural customs you’re so inspired by?
JP: I think we’ve actually gotten really pragmatic now. The best way we do this is to go out to the suburbs every week and to be purposeful about our documentation of inspiration. This way we begin to move away from a reflexive and reactive approach to mythmaking/storytelling and fully submerge ourselves in the history and culture that we come from. This singular focus will hopefully expand outwards to a complete, unique and honest dish.
TOCH: Could you imagine opening Baba’s in any other area? Why/Why not?
JP: I think Baba’s Place is just one realisation of the suburban diaspora narrative. A narrative which we hold so close to our heart. It is not the entirety of that conversation of course, so for me Baba’s Place exists here and for now, but later there will be other stories and experiences that need to be told, under a different name. It will have to adapt and change just like the characters of our stories have…
TOCH: It’s your first time at Baba’s — what do you HAVE to order?
- A shot of Rakija
- Tarama on toast
- Our house made yoghurt (the starter culture is brought from my village in lebanon)
- Cheung Fun in its various forms
- James’ Octopus
- If the Hampshire Down Lamb is on and you eat meat, this is a must. Very special produce.
TOCH: Baba’s is for the locals, by the locals but also, for everyone beyond and in-between! What do you think makes Baba’s Place so welcoming?
JP: All of the migrants and our family members who taught us how to love through food and service. Using food as one way to provide a momentary reprieve from the potential trauma(s) that made them move halfway across the world to start a new life. Those same teachings are what we try to bring to all the guests that come in. Let’s get through this shit together… and with a full stomach.
Before you go! JPLet’s cut to the chase — fill us in on the ins and outs of Marrickville:
Top 5 places to grab a bite at (besides Baba’s ofc!):
First — VN Street Food
Second — Alex N Rolls
Third — Goodwood Bakery
Fifth — Double Taps
Dance here: Wherever there is a vibe. Preferably a secret spot, with the sun beaming down on my skin.
Best pub: Marrickville Hotel
Best park/street/place to stroll: Cooks River trail
JP on staycation!
Listen — album to bubble bath to? And a playlist to get ready with?? Rhye, Woman & Soft Hair self named album. Definitely Baba’s Place playlist.
Watch — Top 5 favourite films that inspire you?
The Swimmers (2022),
The Truffle Hunters (2020)
Home Alone (1990)
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
Learn — books you’re packing?
Pack — what’s in your overnight bag? Weleda Calendula Baby Oil. A toothbrush. Somefloss. Underwear, of course, shorts… oh, and some macadamia nuts.
Room Service — you can order anything on TOCH menu, what’ll it be? Cinnamon waffles with a side of bacon and hashbrowns.