Eugene Shafir isn’t your typical beardy, bike-loving barista. He’s a web-designer, self-published author and chilli sauce maker, and he only opened Eugenius (café for geniuses) because passers by kept wandering into his machine-equipped design studio at the base of his Prahran apartment and asking him to make them coffee. Which he would do. He’s a nice guy like that.
The arrangement has worked out well. The café, which he runs with his business partner Mary Snee, allows him to display his art collection, sell his sauces and Speciali-teas (his own blends) and drink Bloody Marys with the locals.
It’s a kind of café utopia. Customers vote items on and off the menu. Outside in the alley there’s a ‘Before I die…’ dedication wall, where you can chalk up your life aspirations, while inside, people read, write and chat. It’s a far cry from the pair’s first operation. They used to run Manna café on the grounds of the Toorak Uniting church, but the Lipton tea posse froze them out. “It got a bit too political,” as Shafir diplomatically puts it.
Everything on your plate and in your cup is made in-house. “I blend my own coffee, we bake everything, and Mary has a garden – that’s where we get the silver beet, herbs and so on. She’s obsessed with where things come from,” says Shafir. And so is he.
“I like researching dishes that are named after people – like the Peach Melba, and I had the idea that that would appeal to someone who yearned for recognition.” So he wrote a book: Harvey Shmidlap Seeks the Perfect Cheesecake. It’s the story of a rotund, Polish underachiever. Grandparent-less because of the Holocaust (like Shafir), he is a man singularly obsessed with finding a cheesecake recipe to hang his name on, thus legitimising his shambolic life and ensuring the Shmidlap name will survive him. “On one hand it’s a story about desserts, but it’s also quite deep. It's about the search to find what you want to achieve,” says Shafir. “It’s sweet, but it’s heavy. Just like life. Just like a cheesecake.”
Eugenius, 99 Hornby St, Windsor.
Sign up to our monthly food & drink newsletter