The Melbourne venue that converted an old brothel into a slice of New Orleans

“We’ve learnt to describe our food as ‘New Orleans’ instead of Cajun. It’s not about being hot, it’s about bringing the unique spice and flavour of a gumbo, or a jambalaya and finishing it off with a bit of a kick.”

Some business owners might’ve been discouraged from opening a new restaurant in a venue that used to house a brothel, but not Dorelle Haviland and her daughter Vivian. They’ve opened up a vibrant, eclectic and authentic New Orleans, Cajun-Creole eatery in Brunswick East’s infamous old Pickwood Lodge.

The Moldy Fig – so-called because of an old nickname given to New Orleans jazz cats in the 1920s – is as close to a New Orleans experience as Dorelle could possibly make it. The windows are framed by wrought iron curls and fairy lights to mimic the balconies of Louisiana, the kitchen looks like a typical New Orleans weatherboard house and a giant mural covering an entire wall of the indoor seating area sets the scene. It’s as if you’re looking out onto a sultry New Orleans night, a lone saxophone player walking past, as you sip a Hurricane – the quintessential New Orleans drink.

“We’re just trying to be a little real. We decided we’re not going to conform to the Melbourne scene – we’re going to bring the music and food and culture of New Orleans to Melbourne.

“People have told us we’ve got to make a decision – we need to be a bar, or a restaurant or a live music venue. Well no, everywhere you go in New Orleans there’s live music while you eat.”

Dorelle, also Head Chef at the Fig, is certainly not one to follow conventions. Her enthusiasm and dedication to her business, now exactly one year in, has certainly not waned. She has a lot of unusual ideas, and she wants to make The Moldy Fig a place where people can come and enjoy the hybrid Spanish-French-Italian flavours that are so specific to the Louisiana area.

She says people are often scared to try her cuisine because when they hear “Cajun”, they think spicy.

“We’ve learnt to describe our food as ‘New Orleans’ instead of Cajun. It’s not about being hot, it’s about bringing the unique spice and flavour of a gumbo, or a jambalaya and finishing it off with a bit of a kick.”

Dorelle’s love for New Orleans-inspired cuisine began with a copy of Cajun-Creole Cooking by Terry Thompson: a Women’s Weekly-esque cookbook with some classic ‘80s food styling on the front.

Gifted to her way back when she first learnt cooking in Italian restaurants, the book is now tattered and torn because the recipes inside are the real treasure, continually inspiring Dorelle and the Fig’s menu.

If you get Dorelle started on her love of New Orleans, she just won’t stop. She’s bursting with ideas and knowledge that she picked up on one of her research trips to the city with her daughter Vivian, Moldy Fig’s bar manager, about six months before they opened.

“The people welcomed us into their homes – Southern hospitality really is just that.

“Because I’m a chef, the women who cooked this food at home would ask me to taste it, and say ‘Can you guess the secret ingredient?’ and I’d say ‘Oh, oregano’ and they’d say ‘How did you guess? Don’t tell Mabel next door, she’s been trying to figure it out for years.’

“It was really special, and these women are how I got my gumbo recipe and my jambalaya recipe that we use on the menu.”

Dorelle doesn’t care how un-Melbourne something is, if it’s done in New Orleans, it’s done at the Fig. If there’s a bourbon festival happening in New Orleans, there’s one at the Fig. If there’s a daiquiri festival over there, then there’s one here at the Fig.

And in the true spirit of the city’s vibrant jazz scene, there’s a small stage set up in the corner of the Fig, and every single night a local, live act perform.

It’s soft jazz during dinner service, and something a bit more lively and raucous once it hits 9pm.

Although probably not as raucous as it used to get back in the Pickwood Lodge days.

“We still have men come in and ask if they can go upstairs or they try to order something special at the bar. But all you can really do is try and have fun with it. It’s very New Orleans to be in an old brothel.”

And fun is definitely a good word to describe Dorelle and the Fig. She’s even kept the original hot-pink lettering from the brothel days on the wall, rearranged to spell out “The Moldy Fig”. How’s that for a throwback.

The Moldy Fig is located at 120-122 Lygon St, Brunswick East. They’re open Tuesday to Saturday from 5pm.