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'Hope Delivery': Celebrity chef's charity meals feeding international students, overseas workers

Deborah Monrad-Hunt distributing meals outside Rockpool Bar and Grill in Melbourne Source: Francesca Valdinoci

Hope Delivery is an initiative that aims to provide 2000 free meals to international students and temporary visa holders working in the hospitality industry in Sydney and Melbourne. The man behind the project, celebrity chef Neil Perry says it's to show temporary visa holders in Australia that they are respected and cared for.

Italian born Alice Bordignon arrived in Australia in January 2020 on a student visa, excited to start a new chapter of her life. It was her second time in the country she fell in love with during a year spent working and travelling extensively as a working holidaymaker. Only the timing could not be worse this time.

“It has been tough since the very beginning: as a student, you are limited to 20 hours of work per week and I was juggling two jobs in hospitality to be able to support myself,” she says.

At the start of the lockdown, one of the restaurants where Ms Bordignon was working closed permanently and she was struggling to keep afloat.

A few weeks into the lockdown, during one of those glorious sunny days in Melbourne autumn, Alice was strolling along Southbank when she noticed a queue in front of a high-end restaurant.

“They were offering take away meals for free. ‘What an amazing thing!’ I thought. Everyone needs food, food and rent are the most expensive things for a student here in Melbourne,” she adds.

Alice Bordignon
Italian born Alice Bordignon arrived in Australia in January 2020, just before the pandemic on a Student Visa.
Courtesy of Alice Bordignon

The initiative is called ‘Hope Delivery’ started by celebrity chef Neil Perry and his Rockpool Foundation.  

“This initiative came about because we saw that visa workers such as students, WHV (working holidaymaker visa) holders and skilled workers on visas, who are a very important part of the hospitality industry, were out from the government safety net,” chef Neil Perry told SBS Italian.

“These guys had nothing and we thought it was super important that we show them not only great respect but also how important they were to the industry, by attempting to feed them and at least get a meal on the table when we know they are struggling to put a roof over their head.”

Mr Perry is behind a number of high-profile restaurants including Rosetta in Sydney and Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne, where the meals are distributed every day from 12 to 4pm.

Almost every day, while she is on her school break, Ms Bordignon walks across Melbourne CBD to get her meal.

“It is fantastic. Especially in a big city and you are not a local, you can really feel alone and there are not so many people ready to help,” she says.

Deborah Monrad-Hunt, a member of Rockpool staff, just handed her a lunch pack: pumpkin soup, rice and chicken and some bread.

“In Melbourne today, we pack 300 of each of our dishes. We do three meals a day and anything that's left goes to Oz Harvest,” Ms Monrad-Hunt says.

“We are getting people from all walks of life and all age groups, really. We are noticing a lot of people on student visas, which is fantastic, and hospitality workers who are not eligible for government benefits.”

Queue outside the Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne, where the meals are distributed every day from 12 to 4pm.
Queue outside the Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne, where the meals are distributed every day from 12 to 4pm.
Francesca Valdinoci

In the meantime in Sydney, Federico Maccan is busy making sure everything is on track at Rosetta.

Mr Maccan is Assistant Restaurant Manager at Rockpool Bar and Grill in Sydney and the lead manager for Hope Delivery.

“I assist in coordinating the activities with the chef, also in terms of anti-COVID-19 safety measures. It is hectic: we prepare and package 1200 meals every day in the morning and in the afternoon we work on the logistics,” he explains.

All the people involved in the project are volunteering.

“In general, anyone who works in hospitality works to make people happy. So helping others and being generous is what makes us feel good about our job. Even more so now, being able to help the people who are struggling is very rewarding,” he says.

Mr Maccan says he once stood in the shoes of temporary visa holders, before becoming a permanent resident. So, he says, he understands the challenges they face. 

'Hope Delivery' meals
'Hope Delivery' meals
Courtesy of Josh Hillary

Australia’s hospitality industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Mr Maccar says the situation unfolded in such an unexpected way that left many in the industry in shock.

“It all happened very fast. The day we closed, many of our staff were in tears. We had no idea when we could open again.”

“I would say half of the staff in the restaurant where I work are international workers. The hospitality sector employs many temporary workers and they are vital for the well-being of the industry. These people are stuck with no safety net,” he says.

Chef Neil Perry whose restaurant empire was sued last year by a chef for alleged underpayment of wages, says the hospitality industry will continue to feel the effects of the pandemic for a long time.

“Restaurants are reopening with restrictions, it is going to be a long burn to get back to where we were," he says.

“We will go on with Hope Delivery for visa workers and other vulnerable people in our community. We don’t think unemployment is going back under 5% for a good period of time, so there is going to be a lot of people who are going to need our help.”

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