• Ben Shrewry and Dani Valent are up early to cook soup for workers. (Attica Soup Project)Source: Attica Soup Project
Pick up a soup or pasta and help international workers who've lost jobs and aren't eligible for government support.
Lee Tran Lam

1 Jun 2020 - 11:53 AM  UPDATED 1 Jun 2020 - 11:54 AM

"We don't have the table to have dinner tonight, I'm drying the orecchiette," Antonio Colonna told his housemates recently.

The chef usually works at Icebergs Dining Room and Bar at Sydney’s Bondi Beach – but since April, he's been cranking out strands of pappardelle and spaghetti, and stuffing ravioli with pumpkin, Parmesan and crushed amaretti biscuits for Colonna's Artisan Pasta, his new side business.

It's been keeping him busy – and pocketing him a few dollars – as Icebergs has been shut ever since the NSW coronavirus lockdown forced restaurants to close their dining rooms in March.

The restaurant owners doing extraordinary things to keep staff employed
Restaurants are doing it really tough in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are many businesses that are trying to help their employees out where they can.

As a temporary visa holder sponsored by Icebergs, he's not allowed to work for anyone else – and as an international worker, he's not eligible for social benefits like JobSeeker or JobKeeper. Quarantine has been "pretty hard for me", he says. He still remembers how "sick" he felt when the restaurant closed its doors in March. Colonna is surviving by drawing on his savings and his superannuation.

Rent has been hard to pay, even with the reduction he got. But while selling hand-made pasta isn't a lucrative exercise, it's good for his mental well-being and evokes happier memories of growing up in Puglia, Italy. 

Shaping dough from flour, eggs and water reminds him of his grandmother's cooking. She'd make lasagne, bake pasta and produce ear-shaped orecchiette from scratch. She'd leave the orecchiette to dry on the table overnight (as Colonna has done lately) and the chef remembers being seven years old and plundering her unfinished pasta with his young cousin. "Half the table was not there anymore, because we love eating it when it's not dry," he says and laughs. "It tasted amazing."

Shaping dough from flour, eggs and water reminds Antonio Colonna of his grandmother’s cooking.

Nowadays, Colonna uses free bench space at Icebergs' sister restaurant, Ciccia Bella, instead of monopolising his household table to dry dough. He's had support from Icebergs, which sells his artisan pasta through the restaurant's take-home menu (it also sells bread and pickles made by other international employees currently out of work). As a result, the chef has tripled his orders since starting in April, and while Colonna's Artisan Pasta isn't exactly a profit-raking exercise ("I'm just covering my costs"), it keeps him occupied as Icebergs isn't likely to reopen until August.

Chef Neil Perry says visa holders are "integral to the hospitality industry", from the holidaying international students who pick fruit to the overseas cooks who prep our restaurant dishes.

For the government to leave visa holders without any safety net – especially after they've contributed to society and paid taxes for years – seems "downright cruel", he says. "The flavour of the entire country is built on immigration," he adds. It's why he's lobbying government officials to throw visa workers "a lifeline".

In the meantime, his Rockpool Foundation is offering support through its Hope Delivery project, which helps feed international workers. They can collect meals from Sydney's Rosetta restaurant and Melbourne's Rockpool Bar & Grill, which are staffed by volunteers cooking chicken adobo with black beans and rice, rigatoni with roast pumpkin and sage butter, pork ragu with pasta and other dishes.

Neil Perry thinks international hospitality workers are essential to the industry.

The scale of Hope Delivery means simmering 100 litres of Bolognese to feed queues of hungry people. Around 10,000 people in Melbourne and 20,000 in Sydney have walked away with nourishing meals from Perry's team.

For The Attica Soup Project, Dani Valent gets up at 4.30am on Wednesdays to make sure she's ready to chop 10 kilos of onions and two kilos of garlic by 5.00am.

The food writer is joined in the kitchen of Melbourne's Attica by its owner Ben Shewry. Together they might peel 40 kilos of potato for a soup flavoured with a mountain of gorgonzola cheese, or prepare 100 litres of Mexican smoked beef and black bean soup. They're feeding visa holders forgotten by the government, too.

For international workers, Valent also bakes fortune cookies and fills the pastries with messages like "Australia needs you" or "this is your home" or "We value your skills and energy, and Melbourne wants you".

"You'll hope that they'll open them and they'll feel that people are with them," she says.

"It's a real double whammy: not only are they not eligible for something, they're less likely to get their jobs."

Valent hands out the soup with bread and groceries every Thursday lunchtime, and has gotten to know some of the people who drop by. "Yesterday, this guy called Alper told us that he had found a job and he felt like the good energy that he got from visiting Attica had [inspired him]," she says. Valent remembers crying when he told her.

But there are moments of heartbreak, too. She recalls a highly accomplished front-of-house worker, Clement, realising that as restaurants reopen, he is unlikely to get a job. Business owners will favour Australian workers instead, as their wages will be subsidised by JobKeeper. Visa holders lose out, yet again.

"So it's a real double whammy: not only are they not eligible for something, they're less likely to get their jobs," she says. "This was dawning on Clement as he was talking to us. He was at a loss – where do you turn?"

It's an unjust reality that Valent recognised early on: back in March, she created a petition asking for COVID-19 relief packages to be extended to international workers. She wants JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments to be offered to temporary visa holders – and many people support her. She's received nearly 50,000 signatures so far.

"The Treasurer [Josh Frydenberg] has the power to expand the eligibility criteria for JobKeeper and the Social Security Minister [Anne Ruston] has the power to expand the eligibility for JobSeeker," she says.

In the meantime, people can push for change by contacting those ministers and their federal and state representatives, and supporting schemes like FareShare's campaign to hire a chef on a visa. And of course, buy Colonna's pasta, donate to Hope Delivery and order soup from Attica so it can fund the meals the restaurant gives away.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

How a poor diet can impact our mental health
The food that homeless people can most afford is also what is more likely to negatively affect their mental health.
These flatmates are feeding the community from their doorstep
The Newtown Blessing Box began with a recycled cupboard and some tins. Now it's feeding the community and inspiring people across Sydney.
The Sri Lankan restaurant feeding Sydney's vulnerable
Instead of closing during the pandemic, Colombo Social has enlisted top chefs to feed asylum seekers and other vulnerable members of society.
Will your local barista still be here at the end of the coronavirus crisis?
A lack of government support for international workers may have a damaging effect on the long-term viability of the hospitality industry.
How restaurants are pivoting to survive this pandemic
From ramen bowls to two-minute noodles and spirits to hand sanitiser: Here are some of the leaps and bounds food businesses are making during COVID-19.
When you're homeless, how do you eat to stay somewhat healthy?
If you don't have a home with a kitchen and cupboards to store ingredients, it's a lot harder to eat nutritious food. Is there a solution?