'Where you come from doesn't have to stop you': Nyoka Hrabinsky on opening a café that welcomes all

‘Where you come from doesn’t have to stop you’: Nyoka Hrabinsky on opening a café that welcomes all

Lillipad Cafe

We’re profiling female cafe and restaurant owners over the next few months, thanks to the support of Uber Eats. These women are running incredible and innovative food businesses all over Australia, but many have been doing it tough due to the pandemic and in some areas the bushfires.

Here, we meet Nyoka Hrabinsky, owner of The Lillipad Café in Glebe, who finds a way to show everyone who walks through the door how rich Australia is when it comes to Indigenous cultures, food and heritage. 

When Nyoka was a young girl growing up in the Aboriginal community of Yarrabah, more than 50 kilometres east of Cairns in far north Queensland, she never imagined she would one day own a restaurant in Australia’s biggest city.

Nestled in the heart of Sydney, Nyoka, a Yidinji woman, and her Slovak husband Laszio have spent the past 11 months trialling a menu that blends Indigenous flavours and the knowledge of elders with iconic brunch meals at a café that welcomes all. 

“At the moment, we use a lot of Northern Territory flavours like wattle seed, pepper leaf, bush salt and macadamia oil,” she said. 

“One of the most important things for us when we opened up this café was to cater for minorities, for people who just want to go out in a comfortable space no matter who they are or what they eat.” 

This has been especially important for Nyoka who had to make a drastic transition from remote living to the concrete jungle of inner-city Sydney. 

“Moving from far north Queensland to Sydney has been eye-opening,” she said. 

“The people are so different and geographically, it’s so different.” 

Before deciding to leave the only home she’d ever known to conquer the great unknown, Nyoka worked as a national park ranger. 

“I actually had no interest in doing food service or restaurants,” she said. 

At the time, her husband had spent over a decade working as a chef at Lillipad Café in Cairns.

“The owner of that one had been bugging him for years and years to open up his own,” she said. 

“So one day, he comes home and he’s like, ‘We’re going to move to Sydney and open up a Lillipad’.” 

The moment still makes Nyoka laugh. 

It was a bold move, building something from the ground up in what felt like a brand new world. 

But she soon discovered this journey would lead her to an incredible opportunity to teach people about Australia’s First Nations Peoples. 

From the language in the menu to the ingredients they use, Nyoka has been finding ways to show everyone who walks through their doors how rich Australia is when it comes to Indigenous cultures, food and heritage. 

Just in far north Queensland, Nyoka grew up with a vibrant rainbow of rainforest flavours most Australians have never tried. 

“I’m really passionate about my food and how I grew up,” she said. 

“Eventually, I would want to incorporate a lot of rainforest flavours into our cuisine like Blue Quandongs, Davidson Plum, white apples, native tamarind. 

“There’s a lot, lot more.” 

Less than a year after opening, a pandemic hit

When Nyoka and Laszio opened Lillipad Café Sydney, they knew they were getting ready for the climb of their lives but neither of them could have seen just how steep and jagged the mountain was.

Barely half a year later, the world was struck by a pandemic and the couple’s newly built dream slammed into rock.  

“Our business decreased by a lot, over 80 percent,” she said. 

“Our main concern was making sure that our customers could still be fed with our delicious food so we stayed open during the whole time just to do takeaway for them. 

“We couldn’t afford to support our staff.

“We were only able to make it through COVID-19 because my husband’s a chef and I run the front.” 

Finding resilience within herself was a daily battle with the bellowing sound of doubt, low self-confidence and crushed self-esteem trying to knock her down at every corner.  

“I’ve learned not to listen to that,” she said. 

“I grew up in West Cape York, I didn’t have much social experience and I did have language barriers. 

“There wasn’t a lot of positive role models so I wanted to make the change for myself and the younger generation.” 

This purpose has instilled a deep sense of strength in Nyoka that has allowed her to persist as a new business owner during one of the industry’s most turbulent chapters in history. 

“The most challenging thing for me is being away from my family,” she said. 

“I haven’t seen them since January.

“I don’t know anybody here and for me it’s just getting out of my comfort zone and being me and doing the best I can.” 

In addition to running a business, Nyoka has also been studying to be an ethnobotanist who specialises in traditional plant knowledge, people and culture. 

“Where you come from doesn’t have to stop you from trying,” she said. 

“It’s what you believe inside that matters.” 

This series is made possible thanks to the support of Uber Eats.

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