Driving past late on cold Canberra nights I’d seen those caravan fairy lights. In their faint glow between the trees they half-illuminated a mystery. What could possibly be keep all those people standing out there in the freezing cold by this forgotten corner of Lake Burley Griffin?
I reasoned it must be some illegal gambling setup or a bizarre old-timers night-sailing club. Driving past another night with a friend I got more of the story: “Apparently, he’s a world famous chef, but now he only does burgers. Does ’em with blue cheese and brie and stuff – they’re meant to be really good. That’s what keeps the people standing out there.”
Curious to find out more, last Friday night I finally got my chance. Accessing the place is a challenge in itself – you have to approach from the right direction, but beware: once you find that turn-off, your life may change forever. I parked the car amongst the healthy crowd of others, still shaking my head as to how this place, miles from any movie theatres, shops or heating could draw a crowd at this hour. Getting out and edging my way into the huddle standing around the caravan I could tell I was impinging on a new culture with already established customs.
“Are you guys in line?” I gingerly asked the motley assembly of mostly blokes who looked as if they’d done this all before
“Line? Nah mate, there’s none of that… you’ve just gotta use the force or something. You’ll get the hang of it.”
There was something bizarre about this power dynamic. A group of half freezing guys staring into a cosy looking gypsy cabin, waiting on salvation.
I squinted to make out the menu. “Listen,” a beanied regular advised me, “if it’s your first time you’ll probably want to start with a blue cheese Brodburger, then you can work you way through the other options from there”.
Obviously he thought I’d be back to brave the cold again. “Look mate, it’s not uncommon for first-timers to score a Brodtrick off the bat”. “A Brod-trick?” I stammered. “Yeah”, he chuckled to his mate, “three nights in a row!”
It’s not only blokes who seem to be mad about these burgers. Another shiverer confided: “Every time I drive past here with my wife, she laments that we’ve just eaten, or that it’s not dinner-time. Now I have to bring the burgers back to her while she waits where it’s warm”.
The place was certainly getting a good rap from customers. Surveying the crowd of a dozen or so, you could see that underneath their veneer of blokey stoicness, these guys seemed almost proud of something. Jumping out of the caravan to grab more bread rolls out of his car, I took my chance to encounter the man behind operation that so fascinated me.
“I guess you must be Brod”, I tried unconvincingly.
His warm response seemed to wash away any nervousness I had. “Yeah, I am. Sasha actually. Sasha Brodbeck”.
Sporting only a black T-shirt against the cold, his relaxed and friendly manner seemed to draw me further into the enchantment of the place. I had time to learn that he’d had the place open just 4 months before he quickly jumped back behind the grill to keep up with the run of orders.
It was then however that the magic of that gypsy caravan really kicked into overdrive. “Right, is anyone waiting to order?” called the girl from inside, flicking a curl of black hair out of her equally dark eyes. It was my turn.
Her manner, her smile, the way she threw off the cajoling of the onlooking guys… everything was perfect. I wanted to film the Australian version of American Graffiti right there and then. There were no cash registers, no eftpos or state of the art ordering systems, or slick café fit-outs. It’s was just good old fashioned “show me the money and I’ll show you the burger”.
I briefly wondered if it was all a carefully engineered marketing scheme – did she hand me the free chips just to be nice, or could she tell I was fresh meat, the only customer she hadn’t seen before. Maybe there is a dark secret.
I can just imagine a black t-shirt clad Sasha making his pact with the devil, securing his place in the hearts of Canberran’s over the souls of a few hapless bovine beasts. Or maybe it’s just that there is some kind of gypsy caravan magic powering those fairy lights. In any case, it didn’t matter now, I was firmly under the Brodburger spell.
My number is called and she hands over my burgers. I seem to be the last customer around, but someone who’s just a bit too far from the fairylight glow pipes up that he’s still waiting.
A contented but shivering burger-eater jokes “If you think they’re too slow, McDonalds is just down the road!” Everyone laughs, but behind the joke seems to lurk a threat: “Just you go and try it, punk”.
Somehow the fairylights and the fabled burgers have formed a faithful brotherhood. Going anywhere else is the last thing anyone has on their mind. It’s as if the wait in the cold is a test of the burger-eater’s mettle.
Sasha takes advantage of the lull in business to get out from behind the grill and light a cigarette. It’s 8pm and the night still feels young, although quite bitterly cold. As I walk away, burger in hand, I think it might be a lonely stretch for him from here till the end of the night. But before the thought has time to finish, a gang of six sports bikes roars in. Parking right up near the caravan, they are cursing and joking as they take off their helmets.
Where they have been sounds exciting – I’m almost tempted to lurk in the caravan light to glean some details of their exploits. Sasha stamps his cigarette out and jumps back behind the grill. Obviously they knew about this spot. Maybe they fell under caravan’s spell just like me.
Whether he has engineered it or not – Sasha Brodburg has created a real place. A place that will put Canberra on the map much more than the latest architectural masterpiece or grand monument. He, along with Bibimbap’s at Korean student joints and friendly staff at the Dendy cinemas are slowly giving Canberra what it’s been lacking for so long: the special sauce that Burley Griffin, no matter how meticulous he was, couldn’t fit into his plan.
Regardless of how good the burgers are (and you’ll have to judge them for yourselves), Brodburg should already be unanimously celebrated for that.
Driving away with my hard-won burger by my side, my thoughts run-riot about what summer may hold for Sasha and his caravan.
For him and for Canberra, I hope the gypsy magic of those fairy lights lasts a little longer.
Jonathon Crane, August 2009