Shining a spotlight on the Melbourne chefs and charities using food for good

Chef Ben Shewry (second from right) is involved with Helping Hoops, a program that supports children growing up with ...
Chef Ben Shewry (second from right) is involved with Helping Hoops, a program that supports children growing up with disadvantage through basketball and mentoring. Photo: Colin Page

In case you missed Jamie Oliver's "odd bunch" ads on television, food waste is so hot right now. Once the nostalgic territory of thrifty war-era home cooks, it's become front and centre in many of the world's best and brightest culinary minds. 

In March this year, inspired by Melbourne's own food waste warrior, Joost Bakker, New York chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill and the prestigious Blue Hill Stone Barns ran wastED, a two-week educational pop-up. Everything he cooked used ingredients literally saved from the kitchen bin. Diners mopped up melted tallow (rendered fat) from "beef" candles with bread made from grain left over from beer brewing; they scoffed hamburger patties made from discarded juice pulp; they wolfed (or at least, enthusiastically picked at) bits of gelatinous flesh left on the spines of to-be-chucked-out smoked black cod "racks". For New Yorkers it was an eye-opening lesson about the 30 million tonnes of food in that country that is dumped into landfill each year. (It was also delicious, assures Bakker who, with wife Jennie, attended as a guest.)

In Italy, chef Massimo Bottura​ is taking things to another level. Known for his three-Michelin star, world No. 2-ranked restaurant Osteria Francescana, Bottura teamed up with a local charity in June to launch a dining hall for vulnerable, disadvantaged and homeless people in a working-class suburb of Milan. The renovated theatre, known as Refettorio Ambrosiano, uses supermarket fruit, vegetables and meats safe to eat but otherwise destined for the dumpster, to make free dinners for about 100 people per night. It coincides with Expo Milano, for which Bottura is an ambassador,  which has the theme this year of "Feeding the planet, energy for life". 

Bottura reached out to artists, architects and designers to create a beautiful space where diners are treated with respect and dignity. "We are trying to show that there is a different way to feed the homeless and take care of our neighbours," says Bottura (via his wife and translator, Lara Gilmore). "Not only with food but with beauty, light, art, and soul." It's something that resonates with Bottura's Italian upbringing, his never-throw-anything-away attitude in the kitchen and this: seasonal, humble, delicious. "These three words are the foundation of everything we do at Osteria Francescana," he says.

Joining Bottura are big guns Rene Redzepi, Alain Ducasse, and brothers Ferran and Albert Adria.

ASRC Catering's melitinia, Greek sweet cheese pastries baked with lemon and ricotta.
ASRC Catering's melitinia, Greek sweet cheese pastries baked with lemon and ricotta.  Photo: Clare Plueckhahn

In Australia, influential figures such as Sydney's Ronni Kahn have been working on the nexus between waste and disadvantage for years. The former florist established OzHarvest (a food rescue organisation that delivers to more than 500 charities) a decade ago, after working in events management and seeing for herself the magnitude of food thrown out after functions. 

But Melbourne has a strong tradition of its own.  It has food rescue organisations such as SecondBite, FareShare and Open Table but also social enterprises such as StrEAT, which provide hospitality training to disadvantaged or vulnerable youth. Melbourne legend Jacques Reymond​ recently contributed family recipes to a new cookbook for them. "I think in any society it is important to help youth and that help doesn't just mean cooking skills, it means medical help, mental health. Help them do something for themselves in life," he says. 

Ben Shewry, acclaimed chef and now sole owner of Ripponlea's Attica, Australia's highest-ranked restaurant on the World's 50 Best Restaurant List, says the hospitality industry is, for many, a last bastion of opportunity. "You can come in here as a kitchen hand [and] if you're good enough, if you work hard enough, you can work your way up to being an executive chef. It's still completely possible. And that's the case for a lot of guys, myself included. I started in a sink." 

Nearly two years ago Shewry became involved with Helping Hoops, a program that supports children growing up with disadvantage through basketball and mentoring. Like many high-profile chefs, he had cooked for various charity events but a combination of factors, including a stint battling depression, made him yearn for something to which he had a more personal connection. "I fell in love with the work they were doing," he says. "It was really profound and really moving. And they were just getting on and doing it, they weren't making a fuss about it."

As for food waste, Shewry says ethical considerations should simply be part and parcel of your thinking. Writing menus from limited ingredients is challenging, of course, but ultimately "no big deal." You just have to get creative (an attitude backed up by the growing oeuvre of work from frugal food authors and bloggers, such as Jody Allen, Fiona Lippey, Sophie Gray and, soon, Sarah Wilson).  

So, is a social conscience and community engagement now a prerequisite for chefs working their way up the culinary ladder? No, but it's a good sign, says Massimo Bottura. He's recently been pleasantly surprised by young chefs writing to him about drying banana peels and turning them into flour or adding yesterday's ground bread to dough for tomorrow's loafs. "I can't say how important it is for all of us to try to minimise our waste in the kitchen," he says. 

Chef Massimo Bottura.
Chef Massimo Bottura. Photo: Paolo Terzi

"Everyone does it differently; and every chef has their own motivations. Mine comes from my Italian upbringing, from my grandmother and the generation before her where everything that came into a kitchen was used. There was no waste. This is the resource and responsibility of the Italian kitchen today. To teach others how to be clever, generous and, most importantly, delicious."

Food for Good Award

Innovation, charity and sustainability will be the focus of a new award in the coming 36th edition of The Age Good Food Guide. Reflecting a greater awareness of the power of food to do good in the community, the Guide's editor, Roslyn Grundy, says the Food for Good Award comes at a time when much of the public discussion around food centres on health problems, such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. "This year we felt that it was time to salute some of the people who are putting something back and actually using the power of food to do something really good." The Food for Good Award shortlist includes SecondBite, FareShare, STREAT, ASRC Catering and the Sacred Heart Mission Meals Program. The winner will be announced at The Age Good Food Guide Awards 2016 on September 21.

The Age Good Food Guide 2016 will be available for $10 with The Saturday Age on September 26 from participating newsagents, 7-Elevens and supermarkets.

OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn.
OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

STREAT

What's better than great Melbourne coffee? Great Melbourne coffee that helps young people get their lives back on track. Inspired by time spent working with street kids in Vietnam, Rebecca Scott and Kate Barrelle founded their social enterprise in Melbourne in 2009. Teaching hospitality skills to youth at high risk of homelessness, STREAT has grown to include five cafes, a coffee roaster and catering operation. An expanded training centre and artisan bakery, Cromwell Manor, is set to open in Collingwood, next year. 

At last count, more than 150 trainees were being turned into chefs and baristas by the program. The culture shock for new recruits, though, can be considerable. 

"Usually they've had to stay awake at night to stay safe and they've slept during the day," says STREAT's Ian Johnson. "Being at work at 9am is flipping life around. We work hard with partner organisations like the Salvation Army to get them settled, to change their life pattern and get them to turn up. After three to four tough weeks they get very passionate and start to enjoy themselves."

The soft-shell crab burger at StrEAT.
The soft-shell crab burger at StrEAT. Photo: Anu Kumar

Psychologists assess the trainees, whose programs are tailored to suit specific needs such as literacy, communication skills or mental health support. "The common reason why these kids have faced homelessness is they've never had a safe, stable family environment," explains Johnson, adding that a key to the program's success is creating a safe place where people feel cared for and helped. "Almost without exception young people say, 'for the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere.'"

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Catering

Burmese wraps, Afghani pastries, Eritrean pizza. You'll find them all on the expansive (and mouth-watering) ASRC catering menu. It was established a decade ago; about 20 asylum seekers work from a modest kitchen in Brunswick, making food for private and corporate functions of all sizes. All profits go back to the ASRC, which supports about 2000 asylum seekers in Melbourne with its health clinic, legal service, food bank and community meals program. 

While diners enjoy Asian, African and Middle Eastern-focused nibbles, asylum seekers are learning new (and crucial) skills to navigate their new home. Catering manager Caroline Sturzaker​ says many asylum seekers – often women – arrive on their first day shy and "too scared to talk." Culturally it can be a huge first step. "[But] after a few months these people are capable, confident and happy," she says.  

Wrapping rice paper rolls at ASRC Catering.
Wrapping rice paper rolls at ASRC Catering. Photo: Clare Plueckhahn

The program has three aims: to employ asylum seekers who have the right and capacity to work (unemployment is high, opportunities are limited); to create a path to employment through training and hands-on experience; and to show everybody else how asylum seekers can make a positive contribution to our community (in stark contrast to the way they are often portrayed in the media). 

Sturzaker says a recent highlight was feeding 850 people at the relaunch of the Astor Theatre. She says the number of weddings they are doing is increasing, too. 

"We find that people really enjoy being able to have a big event with great food while making sure that their money goes to a very good cause."

Sacred Heart Meals Program

Donations come in all shapes and sizes to the Sacred Heart Meals Program, which serves free breakfasts and lunches to homeless, socially disadvantaged and isolated people in St Kilda every day. Among the more memorable was a whole pallet (one cubic metre) of eggs. "There were scrambled eggs for breakfast, quiches, frittata and we made a lot of ice-cream, " recalls chef and program co-ordinator, Suzanne McDonnell. 

The program began in 1982, when parish priest Ernie Smith invited a disadvantaged local in for a meal. Today, four chefs and more than 20 volunteers prepare 400 meals, every day of the year. More than 90 per cent of the food is donated by businesses and individuals, such as the Dobson family (potatoes), Tip Top (bread), John Russo from Junee Lamb and friends (meat), Carman's (muesli), Monte (coffee and the machine) and Les Baguley (who keeps a vegetable plot for them in Clayton South). Each Friday a truck visits the wholesale market, where many wholesalers offer up a crate or two, which they've done since Father Ernie Smith first asked, 30 years ago.

The menu is designed weekly but remains flexible. McDonnell says the trick is to stay one day ahead in the prepping so there's always something ready to go if more people arrive. And everyone is welcome, no questions asked, she says, adding that people in any situation might need a meal and they're all part of the community. "It's not just about being fed, it's about a community." 

Where to get it

Lentil As Anything

Shanaka Fernando's quirky "pay as you feel" not-for-profit vegetarian and vegan restaurant recently reopened its Preston outpost, joining others in Thornbury, St Kilda, Abbotsford, Footscray and Newtown, in Sydney. 

lentilasanything.com

Shebeen

At this city bar all beer, wine and spirits profits are returned to the drink's country of origin to support programs addressing poverty.

36 Manchester Lane, Melbourne, 9650 6931, shebeen.com.au

Kinfolk

Volunteers have been running this seasonal menu cafe for more than five years. All profits go to partner charities Cathy Freeman Foundation and Urban Seed's Credo Cafe.

673 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 0423 229 953, kinfolk.org.au

Feast of Merit

A "communal dining house" with a Middle Eastern flavour, this social enterprise is owned by YGAP (ygap.com.au). All profits go to youth education and leadership projects in Malawi, Ghana, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Australia.

117 Swan Street, Richmond, 9428 8480, www.feastofmerit.com

STREAT

A chain of cafes that tackle homelessness and disadvantage by giving at-risk youth hospitality training and employment. To find out where your nearest cafe is, or buy STREAT merchandise, see streat.com.au or phone 9629 4222.

Charcoal Lane

This fine dining restaurant is run as a social enterprise by Mission Australia, and strives to give young people, many of whom are Aboriginal, a "fresh start".

136 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 9235 9200, charcoallane.com.au

The Food Justice Truck

This recently launched mobile social enterprise fruit and veg truck sells produce to Victoria's 10,0000 asylum seekers at a 75 per cent discount and to the general public at cost.

Various locations, including every Wednesday, 3pm-7pm at Wesley Uniting Church, 148 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, 9274 9847, asrc.org.au/foodjustice

The Community Grocer

Volunteers and the City of Melbourne run this Friday market, where shoppers from nearby high-rises and student accommodation can buy fresh fruit and veg at cost prices.

510 Lygon Street, Carlton, Fri 10am-2pm, community grocer.com.au

Yume

Restaurants use this app to reduce food waste by donating directly to charities or selling extra portions to the public at a 50 per cent discount. Restaurateurs involved include Guy Grossi, Matt Wilkinson and Jesse Gerner. theyumeapp.com    

Scarf dinners

Pop-up dinners that provide marginalised youth the opportunity to work in kitchens with leading industry professionals. Next season runs from October 6 to December 1. scarfcommunity.org