Lentil As Anything: An Ethical Eatery Where You "Pay As You Feel"
"Pay as you feel". That's the philosophy behind Founder Shanaka Fernando's Melbourne restaurant, Lentil as Anything. Replacing a cash register is a box, where patrons can pay as much as they want for their meal. By challenging the convention of set prices, food is accessible to all - from those in need to those who can spare more.
"Pay As You Feel" Donation Box
Putting the "pay as you feel" philosophy into action are volunteers, interns and workers. A hospitality student interns as a waiter. A newly arrived immigrant once struggling to find work is a chef. A person with a disability confidently makes a latte with the help of on-site barista training.
And then there are people like Dechen and Woedhen. A mother and son who fled Tibet to India and later arrived as refugees in Australia. The family trekked through the Himalayan mountains for two-and-a-half months, barely making it alive to India. Today, Dechen is gainfully employed, making momos at Lentil As Anything (Abbotsford Convent).
The mother and son pair are just one example of staff that can be on roster at the three Melbourne locations - St. Kilda, Footscray and Abbotsford. For all, food is the uniting force, to be shared without social and economical barriers. And with nothing but vegetarian and mostly organic, the meals are consciously delicious too.
Moroccan Hot Pot, Mild Masala Beans, Mushroom Sweet Potato Dip, Indian Korma and dahl and rice populate the self-serve buffet. Chefs are liberated from a pre-determined menu, exchanging recipes and cooking with ingredients on stock and in the fridge.
The "pay-what-you-think it's worth" policy is not entirely unique to the restaurant industry. However, for Fernando, it was born from and motivated by personal experiences. In his native home Sri Lanka, conflict and social disparities triggered Fernando's interest in human justice issues. After leaving law school, where he found that truth and justice were at odds, Fernando went in search of the realization of these values.
His first destination was the Bodhinyana Monastery in Serpentine, an hour south-east of Perth, Australia. He was dismissed after two weeks. Speaking at TEDx Melbourne in August 2012, an event for social entrepreneurs, Fernando humorously recalls the 1992 incident.
"…..The experience of truth was awaiting me in a very unexpected way. Unfortunately, in the monastery, there was a beautiful Buddhist nun and we had a torrid affair." And later, when meeting the Dalai Lama as a judge on television series, Master Chef, "…..if they [nuns] are meant to practise abstinence don't put them in the easiest garment to take off. It's a robe!"
Following the short stint at the monastery, Fernando journeyed further. He lived amongst the Baduy people in Indonesia and the Tau't Batu people in the Philippines, in 1995 and 1996, respectively. The tribes welcomed him as their own, generously offering food and the best of their huts. Among other lessons, the tribes taught Fernando self-sufficiency.
Returning to Melbourne, he wanted to share these collective experiences of trust, generosity and inclusion. "I thought how do I crystallize these experiences and convey it to the community in a modern Western democracy? And then I thought food. Food is a great vehicle."
Moroccan Hot Pot
Referring to his time amongst the tribes, Fernando recalls: "When we sat down in a forest and we shared food, there was an incredible feeling of affinity, of closeness, so I found a little shell of a shop in St. Kilda, emptied my bank account [$40,000] into it….."
That one location in St. Kilda grew to six more, but not without problems. "Pay as you feel" contributions did not cover the cost of rent, utilities, wages and stock for all locations, forcing the closure of four. And between 2002 and 2010, Lentil As Anything experienced operational challenges.
Amongst these were efforts to save the Abbotsford Convent location from potential eviction and an appeal - which was won - to the Australian Tax Office for the restaurant to be exempt from paying GST. Fernando's mission was not without its critics either.
Fernando: "People were amazed. [They said] This is not going to last. Are you crazy? You're trusting people." Despite the comments, Fernando continued on, never losing faith in people.
"I wanted to submit myself to the people around me." Taking his commitment one step further, upon opening the St. Kilda location in 2000, Fernando pitched a tent in a tea tree reserve. "I wanted to know what it is to live without money, to submit myself to the environment around me and see what happens."
That experience would last for five years. Fernando did not earn any money for himself and lived in the tent for three years and with a girlfriend for another two years. However, he gained a heaping plate of recognition.
The former Lentil As Africa won the AMES Community Contribution Award in 2005. Lentil As Anything won the Diversity at Work Award for the Employment and Inclusion of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Australians in 2006. In 2007, Fernando won the Australian of the Year Award (Australia's Local Hero).
Chefs Punkaj Jha and Nick Roga
2009 saw Education Services Australia develop the restaurant's principles of trust, generosity and inclusion into a primary school teaching unit. And most recently, in 2011, the first "Pay as you Feel" money box was displayed at the Museum of Democracy in Canberra, Australia.
Today, 44-year-old Fernando earns a very modest salary of AUD $800 a week and lives in a home with partner Brooke and their two children, Spike and Grace."When you make food available to people without money being a hurdle, lots of beautiful things happen around it," says Fernando.
I cannot agree more. One of the chefs who cooked the wholesome vegetarian meal I enjoyed is an apprentice. The singer who performed during the meal has a space to share his music. And somewhere in the midst of all the buzzing activity that is typical of dinner time at a restaurant, one or more of the staff has been given the gift of opportunity; a second chance at life. As for the restaurant patrons and myself, the underprivileged and privileged ate as one. We were all equal. We were all one. Nobody slept hungry that night.
Learn how you can donate to Lentil As Anything and the "Pay as you Feel" philosophy at www.lentilasanything.com.
For a collection of vegetarian recipes and staff stories, including Dechen and her momos, contact Ilura Press for the award winning cookbook, Lentil As Anything: Food, Culture, Community
*Lentil As Anything: Food, Culture, Community is winner of the 'Best Fundraising, Charity and Community Book in the Pacific' in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. It will compete in the same category for the 'Best in the World' award*.
*Recipes in the cookbook have been created by the staff of Lentil As Anything and include true stories on their personal backgrounds*
Phone: +61 3 9529 2393