THE first meal Temam Hussen cooked was in a Djibouti refugee camp.
"It was terrible," the Ballarat chef recalls.
"We made a sauce to go with rice; onion, oil and a little bit of meat. But it was better than rice and milk," he says.
Temam had fled communist Ethiopia and was hungry for a new way of life.
"When you grow up in Ethiopia ... the kitchen is for the girls. It's not a boy's job," the now 53-year old says.
"Once I left home and I became a refugee ... I had to cook, I couldn't afford to go out and get cooked food."
Temam opened Ballarat's first African and Ethiopian restaurant Café Merkama two months ago.
For now, it is a one-man operation with Temam taking orders, preparing meals and making coffee.
But behind the scenes Café Merkama is a family affair. In fact, it's named Temam's eight-year-old daughter.
"Merkama translated means beautiful" is chalked on a blackboard hanging on the restaurant's rear wall.
One of Temam's dishes is a share platter served with the traditional Ethiopian sourdough pancake, injera, and a selection of locally sourced beef mince, beetroot and silver beet. To eat it you use the injera as a plate and rip pieces from the corners to use for cutlery.
"You take the injera in your fingers and use it as a fork," Temam explains.
"Ethiopian and African food is not exactly like Indian food, but we use a lot of spices. Even the chilli part of it ... it is not something you will burn or sweat from. It's a nice feeling, it warms you up," he says.
One of the difficulties Temam faces is that injera cannot be made from scratch in Australia.
He says the lovegrass, from which the grain is extracted, only grows in Africa.
"It is God-given for Ethiopians," Temam says. "We don't have teff here. I make flour bread by using self-raising flour, corn flour and maize."
After months of practice, Temam says his younger sister Zulfa helped perfect his culinary skills.
"My sister is a good cook, she is in Melbourne," he says. "I learned a lot from her cooking and watching her cooking."
Temam fled to a Djibouti refugee camp located on the north-east coast of Africa in 1983. He lived there until 1988 when he fled again to Egypt on a fraudulent Somalian passport.
"It was a harsh life," he says.
"We left the refugee camp and it was risky.
"You don't just have breakfast, lunch and dinner ...you don't know when you're going to eat next."
"Ballarat people are really, really accepting and they really wanted this change"
About 14 months after living in Cairo, Temam was offered a visa sponsorship by a stranger in Australia.
"When I was in Egypt I had the chance of moving to Canada," he says. "For some reason, (the sponsorship) made me want to come to (Australia)."
Temam has spent the last two-and-a- half-years in Ballarat. Before moving here, he lived and worked in Tasmania and Melbourne.
When the Doveton Street North shopfront came onto the market last year, Temam decided to take the plunge.
"It is scary to open a new business," he says.
"I always want to open one restaurant ... since I moved to Ballarat, which was two years ago."
Temam hopes his new venture fills a void in Ballarat's food scene.
"Now they aren't going to travel to Melbourne for Ethiopian food," he says.
"Ballarat people are really, really accepting and they really wanted this change."
30A Doveton Street, Ballarat
0418 399 391