Is charity a trend? Can anyone actually transform the world through food? Neil Perry, Matt Moran, Kylie Kwong, Ben Shewry and Stephanie Alexander think so. They are just a few of the big names using food to make a difference. But it's more than top chefs effecting change. It's market gardeners, entrepreneurs, small community groups and collectives, musicians and philanthropists. Across NSW, passionate people are using Food for Good – the name we are giving to a new award to be debuted at this year's Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide Awards on September 7. Here are just a few of the good things happening around town, from gala dinners to community gardens.
R U OK? dinner
Jeremy Strode, one of Australia's most accomplished and long-serving chefs, can still be found rattling the pans at his two restaurants, Bistrode CBD and the Fish Shop, most nights, even though he probably deserves to kick back after 35 years at the coalface, but now, the British-born-and-raised chef is working on a dinner to support R U OK?, a charity targeting depression and suicide.
Strode has spent 25 years in the kitchens of Sydney and Melbourne's best restaurants. Picture the dossier he has built up in that time. Now picture a dinner made up of dishes from every superstar chef and floor person he has worked with, and that's what can be expected on Tuesday, September 8, when Strode and 17 of his mates collaborate on an epic feast, staffed by the best in the business.
"This dinner has been four years in the making," he says. "We lost a young chef to suicide when I had Pomme in the late '80s. A few years ago, I started looking at R U OK? as a charity. I think as a society, depression is the last great taboo."
It was another young chef who alerted Strode to the issue in his kitchen. "This younger person, who was working alongside [the chef who killed himself] noticed the problem. Just before he resigned, he said, 'You need to keep an eye on him. He's drinking to forget.' I've never come to terms with the fact that we didn't keep a better eye on him, and we ended up losing this kid."
Call it better human relations, call it chefs realising that screaming and raging at people all day doesn't necessarily yield great results, but there's greater sensitivity in kitchens now. "It's a lot of physical and mental angst and energy," says Strode, who has become more sensitive to what's going on around him as he has grown older. "You're going to get a lot more out of people if you nurture them and take care of them."
R U OK Dinner, Tuesday, September 8, 6.30pm, Ivy Ballroom, 320 George Street, Sydney 2000. Tickets $350 a head or $3500 a table, see ruok.org.au/chefsdinner
■ Ben Greeno – Paddington Arms, Merivale (Sydney)
■ Brent Savage – Bentley, Yellow and Monopole (Sydney)
■ Ben Shewry – Attica (Melbourne)
■ Colin Fassnidge – Four in Hand and 4Fourteen (Sydney)
■ Dan Hunter – Brae (Victoria)
■ Daniel Pepperell – 10 William Street (Sydney)
■ Danielle Alvarez – Paddington, Merivale (Sydney)
■ David Swain – Fino (South Australia)
■ Darren Robertson and Mark LaBrooy – Three Blue Ducks (Sydney)
■ Greg Malouf – Cle (Dubai)
■ Ian Curley – The European (Melbourne)
■ Jane Strode – Bistrode CBD, Merivale (Sydney)
■ Jeremy Strode – Bistrode CBD and The Fish Shop, Merivale (Sydney)
St Canice's rooftop kitchen garden and Two Good Soup
"It's always refreshing to go up to the St Canice parish garden", its founder and driving force, Rob Caslick, says. "We're all busy people, always rushing, but you can't look at a spinach plant and tell it to hurry up."
Caslick is perhaps busier than most of us, running the rooftop garden at St Canice's Catholic Church near Kings Cross and the rapidly expanding social enterprise he oversees in his spare time. (He pays the bills with his day job as an engineer). "I just can't say no," he says.
"The original garden was set up to create meaningful and familiar activities for asylum seekers. There's about 12 asylum seekers who live next door and we had them involved in the build and design of the garden, and now quite a few of them help to maintain it."
In collaboration with St Vincent's Hospital Mental Health Unit, a horticultural therapy program has also started at the garden, where existing St Vinnie's clients grow and harvest the rooftop's bounty that includes leafy greens, natives, herbs and nutritious vegetables. Produce is harvested on Wednesdays and taken to the soup kitchen to be served that night.
The kitchen is attended by "all and sundry" – the homeless, people living in government housing and others just passing through, Caslick says. "Everyone's welcome. Our mission is to show respect through respectful food."
The same soup served at the kitchen is also packaged and sold to corporate companies such as Qantas and Blackmores under the name Two Good Soup.
"For $10 you get two soups," he says. "You get to keep one of them and the other one we donate to the soup kitchen or to one of four domestic violence shelters in the eastern suburbs. We thought it would be nice to provide these women with a moment of comfort in a very uncomfortable time by way of a beautiful soup once a week."
As a result of the success of Two Good Soup, Caslick has been able to employ four women from the shelters to help make and serve the soup.
"It's a beautiful little loop," he says. "It's only small scale in the garden at the moment, but the long-term plan is to have a farm to grow the food and provide soup to more people in need."
One bowl of soup can go a very long way.
Youth Food Movement
The food world is a tough one to navigate, especially for young people in the digital age with Facebook feeds, Instagram snaps, celebrity chefs, advertisers, scientists and health gurus hurling mixed messages about food at every corner.
The Youth Food Movement is a national program that exists to cut through that confusion and create places in pubs or backyards, as well as digitally, where young adults aged 18 to 35 can get together to share information about food and meet some farmers in the process.
"We want to increase young people's food literacy," says Alexandra Iljadica, who co-founded YFM about four years ago with Joanna Baker, who she met while studying nutrition at the University of Wollongong.
"Food literacy is a lovely academic term that essentially captures all the knowledge, skills and experiences people have around food.
"Our other aim is to increase youth participation in food and agriculture. We want participants to become leaders in their community, take action and have a voice in conversations that matter around food."
YFM events in the last 12 months have included BeefJam, a three-day event in which young consumers and producers visited a cattle farm and abattoir to workshop solutions to the challenges surrounding the Australian beef industry, and regular Meet the Maker nights at Sydney bars where NSW producers shed light on the food system with city kids over a schooner.
There was also the Westside Kitchen in April, a free cooking workshop marathon at Granville Youth Centre. In partnership with Parramatta City Council, the Westside Kitchen was all about youth teaching other youth new cooking skills and how to shop on a shoestring.
The most down-and-dirty, roll-your-sleeves-up event happens every March with Passata Day.
"For us, Passata Day is about preserving surplus tomatoes, so we can enjoy passata all year, getting together with friends, and learning about tomatoes from the people who grow them," Iljadica says.
Pasta-making workshops are also part of Passata Day. "We just hang it out in the backyard," she says. "If you have space for a clothesline you have space to hang pasta."
The Aboriginal Go4Fun program
Diseases largely preventable through changes in diet and lifestyle are responsible for the premature deaths of thousands of Indigenous Australians each year. Thankfully, people such as Nicole Turner are doing super things for the health and nutrition of Indigenous children and their families.
One of only five Aboriginal nutritionists in Australia, Turner is employed under Newcastle University's Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health as an Indigenous health academic. She is also funded by the Hunter New England Local Health District to manage the Go4Fun program in the area.
Go4Fun is the NSW Ministry of Health's flagship program to tackle childhood obesity. It's open to all children aged seven to 14, regardless of Indigenous background. However, Turner's focus is on communities with high Aboriginal populations such as Tamworth, Moree, Inverell and Taree. Over 10 weeks, the program involves trained Aboriginal staff educating members of their community about healthy and non-healthy foods, fats, sugars, food labels and exercise.
"The program involves the whole family, so when we do it in schools, we get parents and other caregivers to participate in the program as well," Turner says. "This means it builds healthy lifestyles for the whole community, not just the children."
She also initiates a breakfast program at the participating schools to make sure every child starts the day with something health in their stomachs. "The schools say there has been a marked difference in the behaviour and concentration of children since the introduction of breakfast programs," she says.
An added and vital benefit of the Aboriginal Go4Fun program is that it fosters empowerment as Aboriginal staff are trained, supported and, importantly, employed to deliver the programs, who may have not finished school or possess an employment record of any strength.
There's a supermarket tour at the conclusion of Go4Fun, in which the kids are given a basket and a magnifying glass and asked to scour the aisles for different items, such as pasta, yoghurt, fruit juice and flavoured milk that contain a certain amount or less of fat and sugar.
"It's always a very interesting trip, especially during cherry season, because the kids just stand near the grapes and cherries and eat all those, before setting off to locate what they're supposed to find," she says. "They love it."
The power of food in bringing people together can never be overstated. Enactus at the University of Sydney is part of a global network of university-based organisations creating social businesses that not only make a profit, but do so in responding to the needs or inequalities of people in need.
Culinary Tales is one its projects and has been running for about two years. It aims to empower refugees by providing them with the opportunity to co-ordinate their own cooking classes based on their culture's cuisine and gain work experience in the process.
"We don't just run the classes and invite the refugees to come along and cook," says Nick Hirst, Enactus' marketing director at the university. "We train them up with the skills they need to succeed and hopefully take those skills beyond the program."
The skills have indeed been taken beyond the program. Thanks to Culinary Tales, a Tibetan refugee named Tashi is now employed as a chef at Dee Why RSL, and Saida, a Lebanese participant, successfully launched a catering business last year called Sousou's Place that specialises in Lebanese finger food.
The cooking classes run every two to three weeks and cuisine styles have included Lebanese, Tibetan, Nigerian, Yemeni, Sri Lankan, Indian and Fijian-Indian.
Cambodian Children's Trust Cafe and Barista Training School
"Orphanages in Cambodia and the developing world are often set up as businesses," says former Bondi local and founder of the Cambodian Children's Trust (CCT) Tara Winkler. "The aim is to keep the kids poor and to gain sympathy [and donations] from travellers."
CCT exists to help the children of Battambang in north-west Cambodia out of orphanages and keep them free of the poverty cycle. Winkler established the non-profit enterprise in 2007 when she teamed up with a Battambang local and rescued 14 children from one such corrupt and abusive orphanage.
Vittoria Coffee is heavily involved with CCT and funds a barista training school and Jaan Bai, a restaurant offering work experience and job opportunities to underprivileged Battambang youth. Australian hospitality legends David Thompson (chef at Bangkok's Nahm) and John Fink (restaurateur behind Quay and long-time friend of Winkler) set up the restaurant and both have been back since to help train staff. The restaurant now turns a regular profit and has earned a reputation for having some of best food and coffee in Cambodia.