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.
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