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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Plating it forward


Shaun Christie-David can still picture the bin where he used to ditch his dhal sandwiches, the furtive act of a teenage boy of migrant parents desperate to fit in. He loved dhal at home, made by his Sri Lankan-born mother, Shiranie. But at school, he’d be teased about his weird-looking, pungent lunch, buffeted by taunts of, “Shit man, your lunch stinks”. So, the sandwiches stayed in his schoolbag all day before being dumped in that bin at the train station in south-west Sydney where Shiranie was waiting to drop him home. Today, that dhal, takes pride of place on the menu of Colombo Social, the first of Christie-David’s string of Sydney-based restaurants and social enterprises that celebrate multiculturalism and diversity, giving work and purpose to refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, older women, people with a disability and former prisoners.

“I reflect on that sandwich and I still get sad,” Christie-David tells Australian Story. “To throw away a piece of my mum’s love and to throw away things that my dad worked hard for [because of] being ashamed of my identity.”

The fact that Christie-David was born in Australia didn’t calm his unease. He looked different, his parents had accents, his food was odd — and his confusion about where he belonged was acute. “It’s not just me,” he says. “It’s all of us that grapple with being a first-generation migrant.

“Only later in life did I realise . . . you don’t have to renounce being Sri Lankan to be a proud Australian or vice versa. I’m powerful because I have both cultures; I can take the good from both cultures and build my own identity and really lean into that feeling. But that takes a while.”

His quest for belonging was dark at times, peppered with anger, guilt and shame. He tried to find his place in the lucrative world of finance, but the casual racism in the industry made him angry and the money didn’t make him happy. He went to Sri Lanka but his privileged upbringing in Australia, free from war and full of opportunities, made him feel guilty. “I sat with that guilt for years,” he says. “It ate away at me. It got me angry. It made me feel uncomfortable all the time. It hurt.”

He travelled to London “trying to figure out how to channel all these big emotions”. He came home and worked alongside some Indigenous organisations, creeping a little closer to the mission he sought. “I needed to find a purpose,” Christie-David says, “and I needed to build something that was meaningful.”

It turned out, what he was looking for was in his mother’s kitchen all along. One of his happiest childhood memories is Sunday lunch, when Shiranie would potter in the kitchen while he, his two brothers and father would play cricket before being called in. As an adult, he loved watching friends — no longer captive to schoolboy taunting — tucking into a meal prepared by his mum. “I saw the way people ate her food, the joy and the impact that had, the way they looked at us differently after experiencing that,” he says. “All those things led me to . . . understanding the power of food as the catalyst for change.”

So, he decided to open a Sri Lankan restaurant, using some of his mother’s recipes. And to staff it with asylum seekers.

It seemed like “a wild idea”, says Christie-David’s brother, Aaron. “Shaun is a terrible cook,” he says. Even his mother was dubious. “I would have never expected him to go into this business,” Shiranie says. “But he was very, very keen on doing it.”

So, Shiranie worked with chefs to recreate her authentic Sri Lankan dishes, translating recipes from her head into measurements. Christie-David organised staff training, and in November 2019 Colombo Social opened.

Its Sri Lankan-Australian fusion style was a hit, with queues out the door. Even more rewarding for Christie-David was watching the staff flourish. He tells of Fatima Salim, then 18, who came for a job interview but was so insecure she kept listing reasons she shouldn’t get the job, including that she didn’t speak English well.

But as they talked, Christie-David learned that, at the age of about nine, Salim had fled the ongoing unrest in Yemen. She and her younger sister were separated from their mother in the process, eventually arriving in Australia. Despite this, Salim completed high school in Sydney.

Christie-David employed her even though he was fully staffed. “I said, ‘If you could do all that before the age of 18, you can carry a tray of bloody food and drinks and take it out to people.’” Salim quickly became the restaurant supervisor before being promoted to head trainer of all hospitality staff. Today, she is studying for a bachelor of social science.

But then in 2020, the covid lockdowns hit, forcing Colombo Social to close. “These are people that have left war zones,” Christie-David says. “I knew their families, I knew the barriers that they were facing . . . I couldn’t just let them go.”

Two things happened. Christie-David paid the living expenses of every employee who was ineligible for government benefits because of their migration status. And he got a call from an old contact at Mission Australia asking if he could provide food to the Indigenous community of inner-city Redfern.

“We started packing up food,” Christie-David says. “In the space of two weeks, we had 27 different charities coming and picking up food . . . funding it all ourselves.”

About 70,000 meals were delivered before his third credit card was declined. However, help arrived. Ashik Ahmed, co-founder of technology startup Deputy, heard of Christie-David’s cashflow problems and kept the enterprise afloat. More donations from individuals and corporations followed.

The vision expands to four restaurants

Colombo Social was built as a socially conscious idea, says Christie-David, “but that evolution rapidly grew” into a movement — now called Plate it Forward — a charity providing meals to the needy and hospitality training to new arrivals, financed through corporate catering and the takings of its restaurants. There are four restaurants now: Colombo Social, two Kabul Socials and Kyiv Social.

The Kabul restaurants began after Plate it Forward was asked to provide halal meals to Afghan refugees in quarantine. The first Kabul Social began, employing “strong, capable women who had recently fled”.

Not long after, Christie-David was approached by two Ukrainian women who’d learned of Kabul Social. “Can you do this for Ukraine?” they asked. Find me the people and the recipes, Christie-David said, and I’ll provide the rest.

Kyiv Social is now pumping out green borscht and beef cheek goulash, mostly prepared and served by Ukrainian refugees, some of whom were doctors, engineers, pilots and lawyers in their home country.

Christie-David tells of one woman, about his mother’s age, who had been a chief economist at a leading bank in Ukraine. He asked her why she wanted to serve food. “She said, ‘If not this, what? I’ve been here for a long time and not one job interview,’” Christie-David recalls.

He understood this well: His father worked as a mobile mechanic because his Sri Lankan mechanical engineering qualifications weren’t recognised. “This is, again, what fuels me to do what I do, knowing there’s an incredible depth of talent that hasn’t been fully utilised.”

Another big driver is his memories of those days working in finance, and being the only person of colour on his floor. The way his co-workers continued to refer to him as “Tamil Tiger” despite his protests. “It got me angry because I didn’t see a career pathway. I didn’t see that I could progress,” he says. “I didn’t think I was allowed to be better because there was no one that looked like me.”

All of those experiences, says John Buckney, Plate it Forward’s executive chef, are now being used by Christie-David to change lives. Buckney has seen refugees and migrants grow in confidence as they learn to navigate a foreign land while grieving for their lost life in their home country and worrying about those still there. He worries for Christie-David at times, the way he juggles the management of the enterprise with a deep sense of responsibility for those he employs.

“I’m sure that weight on Shaun is huge. Shaun definitely sees the pain new people in this country feel, especially refugees who have nowhere else to go,” Buckney says. “Shaun definitely is angry that he wasn’t treated fairly as a kid growing up in Australia. He’s channelling that anger [into his restaurants] but it’s still there. I hope one day he can come to peace with it in other ways. But that anger is creating a lot of good.”

There’s a portrait that hangs in each of the restaurants. The face changes depending on the country but it is always a woman, a mother. It’s Christie-David’s way “to pay respect to women who shape and build better communities”, adding, “I look at what makes our restaurants unique, and we’ve always had mums that are the recipe givers and the cooks. There’s always that secret love that’s poured into our dishes.”

Shiranie is the matriarch of Plate it Forward, he says, and the person he strives to be. In the past few months, he says he’s sensed a change in himself, an ability to let go of some of the anger. But sadness remains. “I still see the injustice in the world, I still see more conflict, more people suffering,” he notes. “I’m sad because I see so many warm, gorgeous, incredibly talented, smart people experiencing hardship.”

The memories of that young boy with a dhal sandwich are hard to shift but they’re also motivation: to make a difference in the lives of other first-generation migrant children. Christie-David says his long-term vision has always been about the children, watching as their mothers are welcomed as a vital part of the community, whose pride in their work is palpable. Children learning empathy from all the mothers who give life to his restaurants. Kids whose “futures are so bright”.

“What we’re going to build is going to be remarkable,” he says. “These children, the next generation of the Plate it Forward movement, that’s where the power lies.”

| Christie-David is due to open his sixth restaurant with two First Nations men called Bush to Plate in 2024.

TOP Shaun Christie-David (right) with Kabul Social staff

MIDDLE Fatima Salim

PHOTO Colombo Social

BOTTOM A bounteous table at one of the restaurants


What we’re going to build is going to be remarkable. These children, the next generation of the Plate it Forward movement, that’s where the power lies.

Shaun Christie-David

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