• A conversation Shaun Christie-David (far right) had with his mum (second from right) led to the creation of Colombo Social, which helps others through food. (Supplied by Shaun Christie-David)Source: Supplied by Shaun Christie-David
Why Shaun Christie-David began social enterprise Colombo Social, which feeds and provides employment to disadvantaged community members.
By
Melissa Woodley

17 Jun 2021 - 10:01 AM  UPDATED 22 Jun 2021 - 9:36 PM

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As a first-generation migrant, Shaun Christie-David of social enterprise restaurant Colombo Social empathises with the struggles that those from culturally diverse backgrounds face.

Shaun's family migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka in the early 1980s and settled in Sydney's western suburbs. Sri Lanka was in the grips of its Civil War and his parents were seeking a safe country with opportunities to raise their three sons. "The land of milk and honey," as Shaun's mother, Amma, would describe Australia.

Shaun's greatest joy growing up was his mum's cooking. Amma was very proud of Sri Lankan food and used it as a way to introduce her kids to their cultural heritage.

"It was all about trying new foods, trying new flavours and talking about the food and the process that went into it," Shaun reflects.

His parents quickly established a Sri Lankan community in Sydney and their dinner table was always filled with family and friends. Amma found joy in creating lavish meals for these occasions.

"Her way of expressing herself was through big, big dinners and cooking for all of us," Shaun explains. "Our house was a spot for the whole community and everyone to get together."

Sri Lankan cuisine is all about shared experiences, so mealtimes were never spent alone. These communal family dinners are some of Shaun's favourite pastimes.

"My mum had a rule that no matter who was at the dinner table, you never eat alone," Shaun says. "Sometimes we all had different schedules…but mum would make sure she was sitting down and having a conversation at dinner with whoever it was."

"What I was once embarrassed by and didn't want to showcase for my friends…is now a way for me to own it and show a thousand people a week how proud I am of my mum and her food and our family and our culture."

His favourite tradition growing up was Christmas lunch, which would feature a 48-hour crab curry. This curry was so hot that the meal would end with their noses running, sweat pouring everywhere and curry stained across the table. Today, Shaun appreciates the chance to be seated at the dinner table with his two brothers, whom he considers his best mates. "It's very rare to have no time limit, nowhere to be but just enjoying each other's company and food," he says.

While Shaun may not have been the biggest fan of his mum's spicy curries growing up, he has come to appreciate his Sri Lankan roots. Shaun even teamed up with his schoolmate and hospitality veteran, Peter Jones-Best, to open a restaurant celebrating his heritage.

"Colombo Social is that real coming of age," Shaun reflects. "What I was once embarrassed by and didn't want to showcase for my friends…is now a way for me to own it and show a thousand people a week how proud I am of my mum and her food and our family and our culture."

The menu at Colombo Social is designed to celebrate the communal aspects of Sri Lankan cuisine and is heavily inspired by his mum's authentic curries. Some of its most popular recipes were taken straight out of Amma's cookbook, such as her signature dahl and famous fried brinjal pickle. Whereas other recipes have been tweaked to give them a modern Australian flare and showcase the cuisine's diversity.

"Sri Lankan is the most vibrant kind of food. Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Indian, English — we take influences from all over the world and incorporate it into every dish we make to create a really diverse palate and balance out flavours," Shaun explains.

"Sri Lankan is the most vibrant kind of food. Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Indian, English — we take influences from all over the world."

When they weren't laughing or comparing notes on cricket, Shaun's parents used the dinner table as an opportunity to teach their sons the importance of appreciating the life with which they were blessed. These moments were instrumental in shaping Shaun's values today and inspired the model behind his social enterprise restaurant.

Colombo Social partners with Settlement Services International to recruit and train asylum seekers and refugees with the aim of supporting their transition into Australia.

"My mum always said, you're lucky to have your childhood here and have the best opportunities," Shaun explains. "You have to give back to those that didn't get the same chance and opportunities that you got, and that's through education, employment and jobs."

To date, Colombo Social has employed 20 members from the local community, putting them through a personal and professional development program to leave them with the potential for success in Australia. Further, for every guest who orders from 'Amma's banquet menu', Colombo Social donates a meal to an asylum seeker in need. Since opening in 2019, they have donated over 11,000 home-style meals.

"We saw the need, people going through very difficult times and the way that we grew up expressing our love and care through food — that's what we've done," he says.

"We saw the need, people going through very difficult times and the way that we grew up expressing our love and care through food — that's what we've done."

While this model was initially an immediate response to supporting vulnerable community members, Shaun and Peter dedicated their time during the COVID-19 pandemic to creating long-term opportunities for those without Government support. They established a charity, PlateitForward, which extends their goal of providing meals to those suffering serious food insecurity. The charity also creates opportunities for people with lived experience to gain employment cooking these meals. Since establishment, they have plated over 65,000 restaurant-quality meals, employed four Indigenous staff and two long-term unemployed individuals.

HELPING EACH OTHER
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.

Shaun's long-term vision to create equal opportunities for all was inspired by the lessons his parents taught him growing up.  

"My parents always said, 'It doesn't matter if it's the queen of England or a person that just walked off the street. Everyone gets treated the same, everyone gets treated with care, dignity and respect, and that kind of emulated into what we [do] in the restaurant'."

Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries.

Photographs supplied by Shaun Christie-David


Cashew curry

Ingredients

  • 500 g raw cashews
  • 4 dessert spoons oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 cardamoms
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 2 tsp chilli powder
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 3 tsp coriander powder
  • 2 tsp cumin powder
  • ½ tsp pepper powder
  • 400 g tin coconut milk
  • 250 g peas

Method

  1. Soak cashews for 3 hours
  2. Heat oil in a pan. Add garlic and cardamoms, and fry for 3-5 minutes on low flame. Remove from pan and set aside.
  3. Add all the other ingredients, except for the coconut milk and peas, to the pan and fry for 3-5 minutes on low flame.
  4. Add coconut milk and simmer on low flame until cashew is boiled.
  5. Add peas and take off stove.

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