“We do a lot of corporate lunches and clients say, ‘Thank goodness it’s not just sandwiches again!’,” laughs Caroline Sturzaker.
Sturzaker is talking about the diverse menu – from gyoza and empanadas to a West African vegetable stew and sweet Greek cheese pastries – offered by Melbourne-based ASRC Catering.
Food has long been used to bridge cultural divides; however the menu at ASRC Catering achieves this by delivering much more than just a global dining experience. The diverse offering, spanning African, Asian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, is the work of asylum seekers who are trained under a team of mentor chefs in the business’s busy North Fitzroy kitchen.
The not-for-profit initiative, established in 2005 by the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, helps promote an understanding that those seeking asylum are people with culture, experience and skills. “If we’re catering a function in someone’s house or at a conference, people get a chance to meet and connect with the staff, ask them questions and hear their stories,” says Sturzaker, a former restaurateur who now works as the manager of ASRC Catering. Recognised last year for its contribution to the wider community, the business won The Age Good Food Guide 2016 Food for Good Award as well as the Australian Social Enterprise of the Year (Small) at the 2016 Social Enterprise Awards.
“Our employees come from quite diverse and difficult backgrounds, many are very anxious when they first start,” says Caroline, whose team – up to 15 people are trained and employed at any one time – is hired through the centre’s employment program.
“We’ve had people come through who have been previously employed as accountants, lawyers and in all sorts of roles,” she says. “While they spend time with us, their skills and self-confidence grow and they’ll start to look at what work they can get in their field,” says Caroline. “A number are also balancing their work with study.”
Employee Bernard, who arrived in Australia from Somalia in early 2014 with a Bachelor Degree in Interior Design, was unemployed for eight months before joining the team. “I remember the environment was challenging when I started because it was my first job in the industry,” he says, though his experience has changed since those early days. “I have been given more responsibilities in and out of the workplace,” says Bernard, “I have been supervising different types of functions – my biggest one was over 500 people – and I have been trusted to guide and help new staff in their first days.”
Bernard and his colleagues dish up a culturally rich menu reflective of its origins, with everything from steamed pakoras to to pandan and coconut rice cakes. “African is our most popular, I think because it’s something a little different,” says Caroline.
Staff work with the chefs to put a unique spin on dishes from their homeland. “What I enjoy the most is cooking traditional food,” says Bernard.
The social enterprise, established in 2005, now caters around 1000 events a year, tripling in size in the past four years through word of mouth. “It’s a real testament to the food and the staff,” says Caroline. The business is self-sustaining, not only covering its running costs but contributing 15 per cent of the ASRC’s total income. All profits are reinvested into ASRC programs including housing, a food bank, legal assistance and health and support services.
“It’s a friendly environment, there are certainly no chefs yelling at people,” says Caroline, who has noticed significant changes over time in staff who came to the team very quiet and reserved, and who slowly, as they became good at their job and felt empowered, become much more open, talkative and playful. “Regular employment builds so much confidence,” says Caroline, “It’s truly remarkable to see.”