Grace & Green kitchen rendezvous: Lentil as anything
We live in a world where the word ‘community’ is increasingly used more for the online world of Facebook, Reddit & Co. than for bricks and mortar, tactile establishments. The word is defined as a group of people with a set of attitudes or interests in common. Yet a community can also be comprised of an incredibly diverse set of people working towards a common set of sustainable principles. Coming together to eat, to laugh, to listen to music; to wrap their hands around each other in a metaphorical embrace, united by that most primal of needs – food.
That community feeling is alive in a cool inner west suburb of Sydney named Newtown, which is known for its great bars as much as its charity shops. Think Shoreditch but with less beard...more dreadlock. With a stripped back warehouse feel, luxuriant pot plants and colourful clientele, socially-conscious restaurant Lentil as anything is an oasis in the breakneck and sometimes commercially gluttonous world of Sydney hospitality.
Lentil as Anything began with one socially-minded young man named Shanaka. Sri Lankan-Australian Shanaka Fernando wanted to bring a greater sense of community to his adopted home of St Kilda in Melbourne. Having travelled the world, his dream was to evoke the sudden sense of belonging that sharing food brought to strangers in remote locales, whilst also providing for those who might be going through tough times.
Lentil as Anything Founder Shanaka Fernando
He emptied his bank account and opened Lentil as Anything - a space with a daily-changing menu of vegan dishes would be served. He then went left field and instituted a ‘pay as you feel’ system whereby patrons could choose to donate how much they thought the meal deserved into a ‘Magic Box’ by the door. Sixteen years later and the model has taken off, with four restaurants in Melbourne and one in Sydney. A social enterprise with a vegan menu, cool tunes and a staff of volunteers, it's based on the three core values of Trust, Generosity and Inclusion.
When Grace & Green visited the Newtown branch this week, the menu was a happy-go-lucky mixture of curries, potato burgers and moussaka but it’s really pot luck – the kitchen staff are all trained volunteers from varied backgrounds who inject their own flavours and heritage into the cuisine. One day it might be Sri Lankan curry, another day it might be a stew or something delightfully experimental. The one constant is that it is 100% vegan, which is the diet that caters most comprehensively for religious, philosophical and dietary requirements. This place is all about inclusion.
All staff work on a volunteer basis. Volunteer Coordinator Nicole Khoury describes Lentil as Anything as a ‘training ground’ for people from disenfranchised backgrounds, or who are starting afresh in Sydney and need support. They are heavily engaged with the ‘Work for the Dole’ scheme and pride themselves on nurturing the long-term unemployed and upskilling them with talents that will serve them well in the hospitality industry.
The restaurant often turns over 500-600 meals a day – it’s a thriving operation that requires cohesion and skill. Newly arrived immigrants with little or even no English are welcomed and are initially placed in the kitchen until they feel comfortable liaising with clientele. This is a safe space, where mistakes happen but are delivered with such joy that complaints are rare. Anyway – you simply pay as you feel/what you can. Complaining would simply be churlish.
The operation is entirely not-for-profit and completely supported by customers. A proportion of food is donated from a local Foodbank. There’s no shaming – the ‘Magic Box’ (as the Donation box is still termed) is placed near the front door so that customers can pay as they feel on the way out. A printed guide on each table provides a framework for clientele:
$20 – For yourself and to Pay a Little Forward
$15 – Food & Rent + Costs (This keeps us Alive)
$10 – Your food + A few of our costs
$5 – Covers your delicious drink + dessert
This is sustainable and inclusive community enterprise at its best. Music and activities are also a big part of the Lentil vibe, with weekly Salsa, Open Mic poetry, Yoga and Meditation.
There’s also an upstairs space which features art exhibitions with a social conscience, such as the current ‘Café Art’ exhibition, a project in which disposable cameras were distributed to homeless people in Sydney. The cameras were then collected and finalists chosen. The beautifully shot photographs are incredibly poignant when contrasted with the troubled backstories of the artists, many of whom are still homeless and perhaps frequent Lentil as Anything to eat with the community of Newtown in a safe, vibrant and sustaining space.
Grace & Green is a socially motivated lifestyle brand, committed to the ideals of sustainability, organic produce and the environment. Find out more here.
Lentil as Anything is open seven days a week.
391 King Street, Newtown, Sydney