• Paul West with volunteers at Ricky's Place in Bega, NSW, in an episode of 'River Cottage Australia'. (River Cottage Australia)Source: River Cottage Australia
"There’s something very precious about sitting next to someone, having a meal and just chatting."
Alyssa Braithwaite

18 Aug 2017 - 11:01 AM  UPDATED 18 Aug 2017 - 11:01 AM

Ricky's Place, in the NSW south coast town of Bega, has always prided itself on being more than just a soup kitchen.

Named after a homeless man who wanted to see a community kitchen where every diner was treated with dignity, Ricky's Place offers nutritious meals, a free shower, a place to come and chat or just hang out for people who are homeless, disadvantaged or doing it tough in some way.

Twice a week, Sharon Zweck and her team of volunteers throw open the doors of Ricky's Place at the Anglican Parish of Bega, and welcome up to 60 people from a town of just over 4,600 residents. 

"The idea is that people come here about half an hour before the meal, have a cup of coffee, have a chat to someone, you can have a shower, if you need, we also have toiletries to give away," Zweck tells SBS.

"There's a high number of people with mental health issues here - some undiagnosed I would say, and others realise there’s something wrong but they don’t know how to get their life back together. 

"If we discover someone needs additional services then we try and refer them onto someone else in the local area, but a lot of people really just want a meal that’s cheap and good for them, and for a lot of them it’s a social thing."

Ricky's Place opens for an evening meal on Monday nights, and a lunchtime service on Fridays, and customers donate $2 or $5 - or nothing at all. 

The fixed evening meal includes a soup starter, a main course and a dessert, while at the lunchtime meal Ricky's offers cafe-style service, where diners have a choice of main course and dessert.

The food is cooked by some of the 45 volunteers (some of them are former clients) on their roster - and on one recent occasion, with help from Paul West of River Cottage Australia (6pm 18 August then on SBS On Demand).

"Most of them aren’t professional chefs, but we do have one lady who was a chef," says Zweck.

"Generally it’s very down to earth home cooking. But it’s very well presented. It’s not slopped onto a plate or anything," she adds with a laugh.

The service that Ricky's has been providing since 2009 is an important lifeline for many in the community, whether it's people dealing with mental health issues or those who are living alone and need the social connections.  

"They’re not necessarily people who are “doing it tough”, but they are lonely," says Zweck.

"I mean, I don’t have a detector at the door saying 'I’m sorry you’re not needy enough'. I just say whoever wants to come is welcome.

"People don’t often have the time to sit and listen to people these days. I think there’s something very precious about sitting next to someone, having a meal and just chatting about the weather even." 

Ricky's Place receives donated food that's nearing its used-by date from the local Coles and Woolworths and benefitted from the sizeable donation by Bega Cheese, which paid for a professional kitchen on site. 

And they hope to have their own veggie garden up and running in the future, to supply the kitchen with fresh produce daily. 

And West might just be convinced to return and help them out with his River Cottage Australia know-how. 

"It's definitely got a lot of potential down here,  it's got great sunlight, it looks like it's been a garden once before so, you know, it shouldn't take too much work to get this place up and running," West tells a volunteer, Vicky, on the show.

"I'm more than happy to help out down here."

The future is looking bright for Ricky's Place. 

Watch Paul West help cook a meal at Ricky's Place in River Cottage Australia, 6pm 2 August then on SBS On Demand.

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