What's your favourite food memory? Is it licking an eggbeater while Nan bakes a cake? Catching flathead with Dad and grilling it fresh that night? Eating mangoes for the first time on a hot afternoon? Or is that time you made a really banging lasagne to scoff in front of the telly with the person you love?
I always figured that every Australian must have at least one great memory involving food, even if it was as simple as scoring the coconut eclair in a box of Quality Streets. Then I met the legends behind EquiTABLE and realised that was far from the truth.
EquiTABLE dinners aim to provide a memorable food experience for anyone and everyone. When you buy a ticket to an EquiTABLE event, you're also buying a place at the table for someone who wouldn't otherwise be able to attend. Perhaps someone who has experienced homelessness through domestic violence. Someone who has never sat down to a beautiful meal.
"The idea is that nobody is to know who has paid and who hasn't," says EquiTABLE co-founder Rob Caslick. "We have hair and makeup artists attend the safe houses on the day of the dinner. It's always shared plates to create an opportunity to serve each other. It's subtle, but really beautiful, for both the paying and non-paying guests."
The last EquiTABLE dinner was held at the former Silvereye restaurant site in Sydney's Old Clare Hotel. James Viles (Biota) was on the pass, cooking octopus with 'nduja, fennel and tomato, and pavlova with peaches and marigold.
The women get to transform themselves and that transformation lasts for a long time after the evening's over.
The dinners will be coming to Melbourne and Brisbane for the first time in 2018, with chefs and dates to be announced soon. Previous EquiTABLE events have featured chefs such as Morgan McGlone (Belles Hot Chicken, soon-to-open Natural History Bar and Grill), Lauren Eldridge (Stokehouse, Melbourne), O Tama Carey (Lankan Filling Station, Sydney), Corey Costelloe (Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sydney) and Ben Greeno (The Paddington, Hotel Centennial, Sydney).
"Ben Greeno even brought his mum and dad," says EquiTABLE event director Vanessa Watson. "Every chef we've worked with has been nothing short of delightful. The experience has been extraordinary."
EquiTABLE is part of We Are Table, the Sydney production house for social enterprise Two Good, co-founded by Caslick and Cathal Flaherty. Two Good's mission is to provide beautiful food and lifestyle products to domestic violence refuges and soup kitchens.
The dinner concept came about after Caslick heard a crisis accommodation manager had lost funding to provide fun experiences for the women in the refuges.
"We had made some great relationships with chefs through our work with Two Good, and developed a better understanding of the psychological impact domestic violence has on someone," Caslick says. "We wanted to create an event that didn't feel like 'us' helping 'them'."
"We're trying to carefully curate an experience where we provide the very best of everything we can pull together," Watson says. "We provide a superb chef, a beautiful venue, great music and terrific wine.
"We find that a lot of the people we work with have no positive food memories. Nanna has never made them a birthday cake from scratch. Mum doesn't have her Wednesday night special spag bol. No one has ever shown care or love for them through preparing a home-cooked meal. We're trying to provide some good food memories."
Two Good's business development manager and shelter liaison, Sharon Bedson, says the EquiTABLE dinners have been amazing for the self-esteem of attendees.
"There's an excitement and buzz in the build-up to each dinner ... The women get to transform themselves and that transformation lasts for a long time after the evening's over. Everyone feels so special."
Christine Manfield will be cooking at Sydney's next EquiTABLE dinner on March 20 at the Old Clare. Half of the tickets sold will be donated to Twenty10, which provides a broad range of specialised services, including counselling and social support, to young people in the LGBTIQA+ community.
"There's no hard and fast methodology to the organisations EquiTABLE chooses to work with. We just want to connect with people," Watson says.
"Hopefully you'll sit with people you might not come across in the normal course of your life and you'll start a conversation and who knows where that may lead? Maybe somewhere, maybe nowhere. We don't know.
"We're not saving anybody. We're not telling people how to live their lives. All we're trying to do is create a beautiful night to be remembered."
For tickets and further event information, visit wearetable.org/events.