Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.
Most people come home from a boozy wedding with sore feet and a need for aspirin. Shaun Christie-David came home from one with a business plan to create a restaurant that would turn out to be the most talked-about restaurant in Australia.
"My best mate was getting married and we had the afterparty at my parents’ house. We got pretty drunk and I started calling my mother, I think it was about 1 in the morning, and I said, 'What are you doing?' She said, 'Sleeping'. 'Oh, cool, can you cook?' 'I can...' 'Oh great, well there are about 20 people coming over, and they're pretty hungry.'"
One of Christie-David's friends, Peter Jones-Best, had a hospitality background, and as they looked at the post-wedding crowd devouring Sri Lankan home cooking, the pair came to the realisation that they should start a restaurant serving this kind of food.
"It’s owning that first-generation migrant kind of story, and going through a bit of a difficult transition growing up in Australia with parents who had an accent and being embarrassed of your culture to being really proud of it and wanting to showcase it," says Christie-David. "I used to throw my dhal sandwiches away, and now I serve that to a thousand people a week."
The journey from his mother's kitchen table to opening his own restaurant took ten years, but Colombo Social opened its doors in November 2019 with premium Sri Lankan food and an even more important social conscience. Colombo Social employs a front-of-house team entirely made up of asylum seekers as a way to give people from marginalised communities employment opportunities.
That decision, to give a chance to those who are often denied one, garnered the restaurant a lot of positive press and quickly built goodwill in the inner west. But it also meant that when the first lockdowns hit Sydney in March 2020, there was no government support available for the restaurant's staff.
"I remember that first day, it was a Sunday when we closed. Our staff are asylum seekers, they are not entitled to benefits, they had uncertainty, not knowing what would happen to them. I walked into the venue, looked at them all as they all looked at me as a leader and someone to guide them, and I broke down and cried. I said, 'I don’t know what’s going to happen, but you’re safe with us'. We paid their rent, we paid for everything during that period."
The restaurant was shut the next day, but by Tuesday everyone was back at work, with a new customer base: people experiencing homelessness or disadvantage.
"When we closed we’d been working with Mission Australia in early-stage conversations around the replication of the Colombo Social model in other areas. I had long-term relationships with a lot of the charities and the Aboriginal organisations in Redfern, and when the restaurants shut I got an emergency phone call from Mission Australia saying that our vulnerable communities are people who are homeless, on the streets or in insecure housing, they can’t stop being homeless in this period. When we tracked coronavirus globally the people who are really suffering were people from marginalised communities, people of colour. We made a conscious decision to do what we do, and that's food, so we started donating whatever stock we had left. We gave our staff Monday off, on Tuesday I said, 'I'm going to employ you guys somehow, let’s come in and donate all this food'."
Colombo Social donated more than 1,000 meals in that first week and has never slowed its charitable donations. Working with 27 charity partners, the restaurant has donated more than 70,000 nutritious, beautifully presented, restaurant-quality meals to date. Christie-David says the team spoke with their charity partners about providing more than just nutrition and using the top-quality meals to form real connections with those who are doing it tough.
"When you go and talk to the people you're giving the food to, you ask are you OK, ask what we can do, use this food as a way to open up the dialogue with people who might be hard to reach. People from charities have had really good relationships and really strengthened relationships with people they might not be able to talk to sometimes, or people who are now able to ask for help, ask for other services, things they haven't felt like they could ask for years."
The model worked so well that it is now one of the three pillars of PlateItForward, Christie-David and Jones-Best's registered charity. The first pillar is Colombo Social's restaurant, the second food donation program the Social Meal, which continues to donate meals to those in need. The third came out of a conversation they had with a group of First Nations elders whom they invited into the restaurant to gauge feedback on how the donation program was going.
"We had a dinner at Colombo Social one day for the Elders of Redfern ... Of the nine members of that community, seven of them had never felt comfortable coming into a restaurant in their lives. That was the first time they had ever walked into a restaurant in Australia. We asked them, what more can we do? They said 'yes, the food is amazing, but ... we need jobs'. That changed PlateItForward's methodology from just food donations to A, employment opportunities, and B, long-term sustainability, not just sustainability in food, but sustainability in people."
The third pillar is Ability Social, a culinary training program that serves small classes comprising people from disadvantaged backgrounds and teaches them how to work in a commercial kitchen through a six-month paid program. Many of those who go through the program come from long-term unemployment or have never worked, and they are able to bring the skills they learn back into their communities.
"The first class that we had had a 100 per cent graduation rate, 100 per cent attendance rate and 100 per cent employment rate," says Christie-David.
PlateItForward has a premium catering arm, for events, corporate parties and weddings, staffed by those who are going through or have graduated from the Ability Social training school. Christie-David remembers the first wedding they catered, which was four weeks into the program. "I told them to go out and do an alternate drop, you know, chicken, fish, and they all looked at me and said, 'We've never been to a wedding like this'. And we realised, oh shit, there are so many different cultural barriers. But they did this wedding, and none of them had ever been in a commercial kitchen or even knew how to cook four weeks before."
The wedding was for 100 guests, and the team absolutely nailed it. "The bride and groom asked for a photo with our kitchen team, and our kitchen team, who had never been in a kitchen before four weeks before that, got a standing ovation for their efforts. The whole wedding roared when they came out. I still get goosebumps."
Ability Social is soon expanding into bigger digs in Darling Harbour, thanks to Mirvac, as PlateItForward continues to expand and give back to the Sydney community. "I am lucky, I won the birth lottery," says Christie-David. "I didn’t enter it, I won it. I was lucky enough to be educated at really good schools and universities and have a life that not a lot of people from Sri Lanka get to have. Not to be self-deprecating, but I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I have been presented with an enormous amount of opportunity. I want everyone to get that opportunity, because there are so many people who are brighter, smarter, more intelligent, who don't get that go."
"If we were all given the same chance and given the same opportunity, what a different world Sydney would be."