By Niel Vaughan
We all have that special place where we feel at home, a place as reliable as a best mate. Brothers Leon and Donnie Lam and the team at Butcher 128 know ninety per cent of the faces that come through their door. They’ve forged intimate relationships with their community because this is their passion.
Donnie was born in China and Leon in Vietnam, both leaving lucrative careers in banking and graphic design to return to the family trade they so love. That is food, people and what happens when you put them together in a way that makes magic.
Schooled in Melbourne, older brother Donnie is a serial cafe owner who opened his first cafe at 19. Leon started as a dishwasher at a sandwich bar on Collins Street, which Donnie owned.
Their current home, Butcher 128, is that place where one can bring a date, a lover, a colleague, the in-laws, some outlaws, and even the latest addition to the family. It’s an architect-designed, owner-built place where the coffee is always spot on. The food is obsessively perfect. The smiles are genuine. People are happy to work at a place ingrained in the daily lives of so many Westies. It’s a place two brothers dreamt up when they came to Yarraville to get away from the city.
Today, Donnie dreams of buying a piece of dirt and growing his own tasty ingredients. His wish for his daughter is to become a pro golfer so he can share his other passion with her: birdies, eagles and greens. Leon “loves the alchemy of ingredients and finding what works together”. He learned the ancient traditions of herbs and spices from his Cantonese grandmother and collects cookbooks and sports memorabilia. His dream is to keep cooking and to keep serving his community; even when he gets tired of the long, grinding, hospitality hours he still can’t imagine doing anything else.
The brothers Lam respects the local history, keeping the name and the cold room from the building’s previous incarnation as a butcher’s shop. On any given time of day, the food passes through the loving hands of those who truly care about what they do.
And that’s what makes it worth giving up corporate suits and hefty bonuses.