Image: Lentil As Anything Curry Plate, via Instagram.
Author: Melody Menu
From humble beginnings as a night-time pop-up café, to serving 500-600 meals a day with lines running out the door every night, Lentil As Anything in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Newtown is a creative and cultural force – with excellent food. A restaurant with a difference, Lentil As Anything is a volunteer-run creative hub, incorporating a rotating menu of seasonal vegan meals, a community space for events and workshops, and an ethos of non-judgement, generosity and trust. The food here is both heart-warmingly homely and stunningly multicultural, a kindly medium that allows anyone, regardless of where they are from, to feel truly at home.
Following the celebration of Lentil’s fourth birthday, we had a chat with Lentil’s Volunteer and Community Coordinator, Nicole Khoury, about their pay-as-you-feel model, vibrant and nourishing meals, and how everyone deserves a place at the table.
Melody Menu: Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey at Lentil.
Nicole Khoury: Hi, I am Nicole. I have actually been here for three years now. Most people who come to Lentils will start working here as volunteers, and I was one of them. I volunteered here for a year in the restaurant, and I actually volunteered in the community space above, teaching yoga. And then I ended up here in this amazing space in this role. Many people that start here become a bit addicted to it in a way, or a part of the community, and just continue to stay involved. I think everyone has a similar story in that they’ve come volunteering because they wanted to experience something new, or engage in the community, or find connection, and then they end up being a part of the family.
MM: What is it about Lentil that’s so addictive?
Nicole: I guess it’s the sense of community that you get in the big city of Sydney. It’s very easy to feel like you’re a bit alone, or a little bit away from natural human interaction. So Lentils is a really easy way to connect with people. And then also, as a volunteer, you’re not judged for who you are, where you’re from, and you’re able to contribute in your own capacity. And I think that’s something people really appreciate, and therefore want to continue.
I think my favourite thing personally – and I’m sure lots of other people – is that you get a real cross-section of the community here. You don’t just get students, or you don’t just get backpackers – you get a real mix! And I guess it makes the days really interesting, and every moment here very captivating. No day is the same, and no interaction is the same.
MM: Talk me through how Lentil operates.
Nicole: Lentils is a pay-as-you-feel, pay-what-you-can model. So people pay what they can afford to pay. They can obviously pay with money, but if they can’t afford it, they can volunteer for it. And if you’re able to pay a little bit extra, then you can pay it forward for the next person who might not be able to afford their meal, and may not be ready to volunteer for it just yet. So the system is based on generosity and trust. We trust people pay, and we trust that they will donate in the future if they can, or volunteer for it, and that people will be generous with their donation or their time, as well.
And also – we don’t just serve food. We offer volunteer programs so they can get experience, build confidence, connect with other people in the community, make friends, develop their social skills. And then within that, we also have our community space; we offer classes and workshops and events by donation. So your participation isn’t limited by how much money you have – just the fact that you like to participate and learn and grow.
MM: What is Lentil’s philosophy?
Nicole: It’s about giving people space to be able to connect with other people in the community, and be able to sit down and enjoy a meal with other people, maybe talk to them. It’s also breaking down the barriers of socio-economic divide – everyone can afford to eat at Lentils, so you’ll have a mixture of people being able to eat here. From people who have lots of money and just love veganism, or love community initiatives, to somebody who can’t afford a meal elsewhere.
And then in the greater community, we’re a stepping stone for people. So people often come here, and maybe they’re going through a difficult time, and then they build their confidence, and they move on and they find work and we’ll provide them a reference, they’ll be able to learn about different community programs through Lentil, and be able to connect with other people who are also working in community services.
MM: What is the significance of serving vegan food in particular?
Nicole: The reason why vegan is because it’s the most inclusive diet – it doesn’t discriminate against your religion, your philosophy on animal welfare, or your dietary requirements if you’re lactose intolerant, or any of those diets. So it’s all about inclusivity; rather than an exclusive vegan place – we’re an inclusive vegan place. We don’t put ‘vegan’ everywhere, you may notice, because we want non-vegans to feel comfortable enough to eat here – that it’s a place for them as well. The inclusivity part of our food is what’s important to us.
MM: How do you choose what is cooked each day?
Nicole: The food is dependent on produce. So we buy food from the market like any other restaurant, and we pay rent, like any other restaurant. But we also get some donated through Foodbank, which is a food rescue. And then if there’s an excess of something, say pumpkins, then there will be a pumpkin-filled menu. But it’s also very much dependent on the chefs. The cooks all come from different backgrounds and different influences, and generally – more than anything – different tastes in food. So whatever they like eating and cooking, is what you’re going to see on the menu, which is nice. And most of the cooks start off as volunteers, and then we train them how to cook food, and so whoever taught them, is what they’re going to make.
MM: It’s such a big family!
Nicole: Yeah, definitely.
MM: What do volunteers get out of their time here?
Nicole: They get so many things – they get to meet other people; if they just moved to Australia and don’t speak English very well, they can practise speaking English. If they would like to get experience in hospitality or work, it’s a place you can get experience.
Maybe people find it hard to keep a job, so they feel anxious or overwhelmed or depressed. It’s hard for them to feel like they’re contributing and to call your boss and say ‘hey, I’m feeling anxious today.’ But we’re quite understanding, so you can always come upstairs and have a breather and go downstairs when you’re ready. Because we see that everyone deserves to work if they want to work, and sitting at home alone gets a bit boring after a while. It’s based on inclusivity with our volunteers – we believe in second and third chances. So I think the volunteers get a lot out of it – they get food as well, and food to take home, which is also just as great.
MM: How important is paying it forward?
Nicole: It’s what keeps us going. People may not be able to afford much, or they might be going through difficult times. We recognise that people may not pay that much, but maybe they will pay later on. And that happens so often – someone will come in and give us a big lump sum to say thank you for feeding them for so long, or someone’s parent does.
MM: And how about in society at large?
Nicole: I think people have a bit more of an understanding in that they’re paying it forward for someone who is in a position that most people will go through in their lives. They’re not always paying it forward for someone who is sleeping rough, and they can’t often fathom that. Everyone goes through ups and downs; you’re paying it forward for someone who may be just finding it hard to find work in-between jobs. Maybe their industry has changed, maybe they’ve become a carer to a family member so money supply is less, or they have become physically, mentally or emotionally injured; going through a bad break-up, distancing themselves from family and friends. Everyone goes through that, whether it’s for one month or three years. I think paying it forward is important in recognition that it is not always to the person who exists beyond their social sphere.
MM: What is your favourite Lentils dish?
Nicole: There’s one that I like that’s corn pie – the chefs make that and I really like it. I really like the corn in it, it reminds me of my time in South America. Also, probably the stir-fry chili basil eggplant, I like that – it’s really good. Also, our felafels are really good – and I’m a felafel connoisseur. That’s probably my favourite – felafel plate. But the menu changes so often that every day is a nice surprise.
You can find Lentil As Anything at 391 King St, Newtown NSW, and locations across Melbourne.