It is a complete coincidence that the day I talk to Lara, a consummate and passionate waitress, is within days of finding out that what most people dislike about restaurants is the service. It is a coincidence but it is also a tremendous reassurance – although towards the end of our conversation she, too, is echoing some of the disappointment that flowed out of others’ mouths. ‘I lament the lack of love and professionalism in the industry,’ are her words.
Both love and professionalism Lara Alberd has in spades; anyone encountering her at her current workplace, the Byron Beach Café, could attest to that. I remember how startled – how impressed – I was years ago when, a month having divided one visit from the next, Lara remembered not only that riesling was my preferred white wine but also precisely which one I had previously ordered. That attention to detail is one of the qualities that separates a good waitperson from a great one.
What we are really talking about is, however, Lara’s past. She is one of those very rare people in the Byron Shire: she was born here, not blown in, some thirty years ago. Born, moreover, in the hospital opposite her parents’ house. ‘Mum and dad – Judy and Terry – had just put their first trawler in the water that year, called La Crevette’, she tells me. ‘Heavily pregnant mum helped dad steam and bend timber in the Shirley Street front yard. Red lead was painted on the timber to stop the rot – it’s amazing I didn’t come out [born] with major deformities!’
Boats, and fishing from them, were Terry’s passion. This was the heyday of prawning, when there were gluts of prawns in the area; within 18 months Lara’s parents owned the boat outright. ‘Prawning was so prolific at the time – prawning paid for it,’ Lara says.
Her mother’s mother, Mullumbimby-born, had been the town dressmaker and she made everyone’s wedding dresses throughout the 50s, the 60s and the 70s. Her grandfather worked in sandmining all the way up the coast from Yamba and kept diaries, which Lara still owns. As a young girl Judy worked at the only café in Byron Bay. Ryan’s Café was owned by the Ryan sisters and would be frequented by Terry, the Lismore-born son of a gypsy family, who had come to Byron out of his love for fishing. At the time he was living at The Pass in an old army tent with Brunswick Heads signwriter John McKegg. ‘All they did was fish all day,’ Lara says, ‘then go to the pub in the evening and sell their fish and their crayfish to locals. They lived right where the shower block is. He’d go into Ryan’s Café, and that’s how he met mum. Byron Bay had a population then of 2,000 people and everyone knew everyone else.’
Terry and Judy married in the 60s and had Lara, their only child. Right from the time she was a baby Lara was taken out on the boat, up to the Gold Coast to fish and to prawn. And then when she was three her parents split up. Around that time Terry sold La Crevette and began to build another boat he named after his daughter, Lara J. Terry had to have the biggest trawler in Brunswick Heads and his motto was, ‘If you’ve got to be a wheel, you’ve got to be the biggest’. Even after her mother moved to Sydney Lara divided her time between her parents. All her holidays were spent back in Byron, out on the boats with her father. ‘Lara J went on to become free money,’ she tells me. ‘The prawning was becoming so intense. Dad was a wealthy man and bought his Lawson Street block of land with one week’s wages.’
Lara wound up in the hospitality industry front-of-house despite beginning, as an adult,
a chef’s apprenticeship. She knew she was a people person; she certainly had a passion for food. (‘Dad was a brilliant cook – if he found a tuna we’d have sashimi,’ she recalls.) She is also a wonderful storyteller: I tell her she should write a book, and she assures me that’s part of the plan.