23 August 2023

Five minutes with Chris Henry, Blackbird Thirroul

| Dione David
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Chris Henry from Blackbird Thirroul cheers with an ined strawberry

Chris Henry is the co-owner of Blackbird Thirroul, a “community-based” cafe in the heart of the village. Photos: Blackbird Thirroul.

In a nutshell, who is Chris Henry?

I’m the co-owner of Blackbird cafe in Thirroul with my wife, Alice. It wasn’t a chosen career, but I seem to keep coming back to it, so I guess you could say I’m a hospitality “lifer”. We moved to the Illawarra 18 years ago to run a pub Alice’s family had bought. When the pub sold, we thought about moving back to Sydney but put down roots in Thirroul instead.

What is Blackbird?

It’s best described as a community-based cafe. We opened pre-COVID with intentions to have a little cafe that catered to the thriving tourism industry, but the pandemic changed everything. We had to pivot and, in the process, became community-oriented, which very much made the business what it is today. It’s a meeting point for the locals to have coffee and catch up. One thing we find is that a lot of people arrive by themselves and end up at tables together. We love that. And we lean into that role by supporting local organisations whenever we can, too.

Waiters hand holding corn fritters plated with bacon, poached egg and rocket

Corn fritters are a signature dish at Blackbird.

What’s Blackbird’s signature dish?

We’re probably best known for our corn fritters, which we serve with a poached egg, creme fraiche, dill and your choice of bacon or halloumi or you can customise it with smoked salmon.

Our truffled mushrooms are also very popular. That’s roasted field mushrooms with black truffle oil, served with poached eggs, sauteed baby spinach and shaved parmesan. It’s a really tasty vegetarian option.

What’s your favourite cuisine?

Just about anything Asian, but if I had to pick one, I’d say Japanese. It’s versatile, simple, healthy and delicious.

READ ALSO Five minutes with Elizabeth Burnett, The Quarry Cafe Kiama

What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without?

I feel like there’s at least one in every category! But if I had to choose, probably eggs. And olive oil.

Who is your biggest culinary influence?

Anthony Bourdain. He wrote a book called Kitchen Confidential and did cooking tours. He was a very accomplished line chef in New York, and his book was a very raw look at what the industry is like. It’s probably the most honest portrayal of the kitchen you could come across. He was not full of fluff and never claimed to be a great chef, but he knew the industry inside out.

Sweet and savoury pastries on a dish on a windowsill

Chris bakes savoury and sweet treats in-house daily.

What’s inspiring you right now?

The way the industry is changing in response to the economy – though that’s more a drive than an inspiration. For a while there the industry went through a phase of excess, but the pendulum has swung the other way now, so I think we need to strip things back to make things affordable again and get people comfortable with eating out. You know, not pushing the envelope too much and charging too much, just providing good food, good service, and a place for people to come together.

Where in the Wollongong area is your go-to for dining out?

I really like Beast Eatery in Wollongong. They make a mean ramen. The menu is tiny but what they do, they do well.

Closer by, I’m really liking Boveda in Thirroul.

What do you think of as an iconic Wollongong food institution?

Rookie Eatery. Those guys have always done a good job.

Where do you dine out for special occasions?

We try to support as many local businesses around us as we can and with so many amazing places to eat nearby, it’s not hard.

Bar Franco in Thirroul is one, they’ve always looked after us well. The quality is second to none. We even had our staff Christmas party there.

Graham at South Sailor in Thirroul has done an amazing job there – a great variety of specials each night, so it doesn’t have to be an “occasional only” restaurant. We actually used to have the fish and chip shop “Jim’s” that was there before South Sailor and we lived behind the shop. Our youngest daughter was born while we were there, so there’s some sentimental value in it. And what Graham has done to the shop is very close to what we had wanted to do ourselves.

Where would you take out-of-town visitors to show off the best of the Illawarra region?

Probably Harbourfront Seafood Restaurant, so they could see the harbour as they dine. Afterwards they can walk along the Blue Mile [Walk], and take in the beach because the area itself is stunning.

Four cafe staff members in a kitchen smiling

Members of the Blackbird team with co-owner Alice (front).

Favourite bar?

Night Parrot. It’s nice and intimate with really good cocktails and wine, plus you can actually have a conversation there.

What’s your go-to coffee?

Opus Coffee Brewers in Wollongong. They’re my go-to when I want to have breakfast out in the city as well.

READ ALSO G’day Busters Tavern, so long Papi’s (sort of)

Who do you admire in the local food scene?

Disco Dining Group. They’re the guys behind Boveda in Thirroul, Bar Padres in Kiama and now Busters Tavern. They’ve always stayed ahead of things and are doing a really good job.

Favourite cookbook?

The Tetsuya book. It’s more than 20 years old but still relevant.

Chris and Alice from Blackbird Thirroul smile at the camera in front of a light blue wall

The friendly owners of Blackbird Thirroul, Chris and Alice, moved to the Illawarra about 18 years ago and have been part of the local hospitality scene since.

What are your top cooking tips?

It might seem a little obvious, but keeping it simple – less is better in a lot of ways so don’t overload things.

If you’re cooking with kids, involve them as much as you can – they’ll always eat what they make.

When cooking for family, plan ahead. It’s better to know what you’re doing two days in advance rather than making it up on the spot, and you’ll save yourself a lot of stress and money in the process.

Make a bit more whenever you can to save yourself time and hassle. Leftover bolognese from yesterday’s spaghetti can be easily repurposed for a delicious shepherd’s pie.

Blackbird Thirroul is open from 6 am to 2:30 pm seven days, at Shop 3/2 McCauley Street, Thirroul.

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