Lentils as Anything Profile Piece

I wrote this for the book Lentil as Anything: Food, Culture, Community.

The book, published by Illura Press combines recipes and anecdotes to tell the story of the unique “pay as you feel” restaurant.

It’s lunchtime at Lentils as Anything in St Kilda, and like the suburb itself, the restaurant is buzzing.

Vegetarian pancakes crackle in their pans as the staff- today Eddie and Sahil, joke behind the counter.

With Lady Gaga blaring over the speakers, the atmosphere is breezy and relaxed.

Staff move around the restaurant chatting amongst the customers, who stop to listen, forks poised over their beetroot curries.

But gazing around the bright interior,you can’t help but notice the unusual mix of people here.

A group of friends talk uproariously at the front of the store. In the corner, a couple share a dish whilst a young man disheveled and dirty,sits by himself at a table.

Out the front, Michael Terry sips on his coffee.

Michael Terry has lived in St Kilda for most of his life. He’s seen the suburb grow and change. He remembers the goth club on Fitzroy street, a place he considers one of the last institutions that accepted everyone in St Kilda. He remembers when the shopfront we sit outside was little more than a bead shop,before he saw it develop into St Kilda Lentils as Anything, filling a void he always thought St Kilda held.

“This is a stable place, that supports any number of communities. A whole range of people have been in here, from Jeff Kennett to junkies. The artisans and the poets, sitting alongside each other in this restaurant.”

Michael Terry explains that there has been nowhere for the people of St Kilda to go for 40 years.

“They only just recently put seats on Fitzroy St for people to sit on,” he says.

“There was nowhere for people to go, to share and interact.”

Lentils,he says, provided that, and the locals loved it.

“There used to be poetry evenings at the restaurant and 200 locals would come.”

According to Michael Terry, this unsettled the hierarchy of St Kilda and there was originally opposition to the restaurant.

“People were leaving other cafes and going to Lentils. They were showing that there is another way to go about things. Another way for something to be sustained and maintained.”

Lentils as Anything showed the people of St Kilda that human development is just as important as economic development. That things are still

worth doing, even if there’s no money to be gained from them.

Eddie, who manages St Kilda Lentils agrees.

When he left his job as a chef three and a half years ago after Shanaka asked him to join Lentils as Anything, he was drawn by the “Pay as you feel” policy.

“To me that says, ‘Trust me man,’ and in this country, you need a heart to do that.”

Eddie had worked in some of the busiest kitchens in Australia, but Lentils was the first place he felt his job was not just for money.

And communities like St Kilda he says, allow places like Lentils to exist.

“A single individual cannot just open a place, you need mass support.”

Eddie spends most of his time in St Kilda, and he knows how all kinds of little people can make a huge impact.

He talks about a regular St Kilda customer, Robert, who offers to pick up deliveries since Eddie can’t drive. He talks about customers who put $50 or $100 in the box.

According to Michael Terry, St Kilda was in desperate need of place like this, where a diverse range of people can come and help each other and interact.

“We have Turkish people living alongside Maoris living next to Greeks.”

“We also have a lot of damaged, sensitive people here.We need to acknowledge each other as brothers.”

At Lentils,he says, the principle of love thy neighbour exists. No matter who your neighbour is. A principle of human nature that isn’t seen much.

According to Michael Terry there is a very strong need for people to interact, to share their experiences and ideas.

It can be something as simple as, “I need to water my plants,” or “I met a girl today,” but we all need somewhere we can share things. Everyone is allowed to do this at St Kilda Lentils.

Like Michael Terry, Eddie appreciates the acceptance Lentils offers.

“Lentils has given me the opportunity to run a place where there’s no pressure about what you think, or what you’re gonna think.”

At Lentils, he will just give anyone a job, give anyone a chance and look at what they can do.

“Give them the opportunity and they thrive.”

For evidence, he points to the cook Sahil.

Sahil finished high school in India and moved to Australia knowing no one, with nowhere to go.

He either had to forge his own path, or head home.

Eddie offered him a job as a dishwasher, and a year later he’s a cook and Eddie’s right hand man.

“He doesn’t like cooking,but here, he tries cooking. Lentils St Kilda provides him with that opportunity,” says Eddie.

And what about Eddie? What has he achieved since working here?

“My greatest achievement in my life is this place.

“I don’t run the organization, but I have respect. Not just at Lentils but in many organizations. I can say something, and they will do it. That is the impact I have. That is my greatest achievement. The respect.”

For Michael Terry the best thing about Lentils is the comfort it provides for a huge variety of people.

As we finish the interview a shiny black Mercedes pulls up and parks next to the lines of bicycles out the front. The owner jumps out and enters Lentils, summing up the unique kind of place this is.

Michael Terry looks out across the road.

“And the salads,” he says, “I really like their salads.”

 

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