Ciao speaks with Ravi Prasad from Parliament on King, the Inner West cafe where refugees and asylum seekers cook for the community and build their hospitality skills.
Community spirit and the culinary talent of newly arrived Australians are essential ingredients at Parliament on King, the Newtown social enterprise that helps asylum seekers and refugees fine-tune their hospitality skills while earning an income. Founded by Ravi and Della Prasad four years ago, the cafe is now encouraging Inner West locals to come and book a private dinner, to feast on some of Sydney’s finest international cuisine in the meantime. Ravi talks to Ciao about the ethos that drives the cafe, and shares some of his favourite stories.
How did Parliament on King begin?
We’re a small little café in my living room. We initially used that space to train asylum seekers and refugees in hospitality — making coffees, barista skills, things like that. We quickly realised how smart these people were, but also realised the importance of work. We started having them cook for us — their food, their way, on their terms — and we would sell that for local family dinners, so that we started getting these people paid. Then people started asking us for food, so we started a social enterprise catering company, which we thought would just be a hobby. We’ve now been operating this social enterprise catering project for the last year and a half. We exclusively provide foods cooked in the traditional style of the countries of origin of the asylum seekers and refugees that work with us. We’ve gone on to create thousands of hours of paid employment over the last 18 months, cooking for everyone from The Guardian to SBS and the premier. It’s turned into a real thing.
How important is the Inner West community to your initiative?
Everything we do is only made possible by the support of the local community. That’s the regulars that come here, for a start, as well as the people who buy our catering. A great example of the support we get is if you look on our Facebook page. Once, one of our refugees needed cameras, and so we put up one post only on our Facebook page. Within ten days we had received ten DSLR cameras — some of them brand new — which enabled the refugee photography project to happen. In another instance, a young Syrian guy came in one day to learn how to make coffee. We started talking about what he wanted from life, and he said: “One day, I want to have my own bedroom and a piano, so that I can play and practice piano like I did in Syria.” We couldn’t give him his own bedroom, but we put a post up on our page asking for pianos. Within one week, we’d received offers for maybe a dozen pianos. We found him a beautiful electric piano which the donor delivered all the way out west to his house for him. It’s the support of the local community that makes all of this possible.
How does community support help the settlement process for the people you work with?
First of all, the experiences they have at the café, with the dinners and the catering, connects them to locals as equals and as friends, doing a shared thing together. They connect with the local community, and it helps them understand us better — the idiosyncrasies in the way we speak English, for example. It’s a way of getting to know the vernacular, but also a way of connecting the asylum seeker community with the local community, and creating bridges of friendship and understanding that cross cultures.
What kind of stories inspire you to do the work you’re doing?
We had this beautiful, smart Iraqi girl come in to do café training. She was really good, so I asked her if she could cook, and she ended up doing some dinners and catering. A few weeks later, she told me: “You’ve got to meet my sister”. So her sister started coming. Then the sister said: “Hey, you have to meet my brother, he’s great”. Then the brother started coming. Then the brother said: “You know what, we actually learnt all our cooking skills from our mum”. So then the mother started coming. Then they said: “My dad’s pretty good too — before the previous job he had in Iraq he worked in a restaurant”. Then the second sister, who had been separated from her fiance for three years while he was granted refugee status in Turkey, said: “My fiance’s here now, and he also often helps with the family cooking”. So we had two sisters, the brother, the fiancé, the father and the mum. They loved it and enjoyed the experience so much, and it meant so much to them, that they wanted to share it with everyone in their family. It tells me that it’s working — we’ve provided something that’s meaningful, not just a way to get paid. It provides purpose, and it makes people happy. For me, that’s beautiful.
Can you tell us more about your new private dinner initiative?
The idea is to up-skill everyone just a little further. The food is really beautiful, and we’ve gotten a Good Food Award and some good reviews as a consequence. But there’s still scope for our workers to be able to lift their game in terms of service standards, front of house presentation, atmosphere, and language skills. So the idea is to do more and more of these private dinners in at the café, to provide an experience where we can actually practice operating and behaving like we were a fine dining restaurant — as close as we can given the resources that we’ve got. I reckon that in a couple of years’ time there will be people who have gone through this program that will be working in some of Sydney’s best restaurants, and working there on their own merit. That’s the idea of the private dinners.
What does the future hold for Parliament on King?
What we’ve done over the last few years is we’ve demonstrated that it works. We’ve got some really good systems and processes — the food is always beautiful. Now that we know it works, it’s about getting together enough resources to scale this incredible opportunity for people. Time will tell, and because we’re self funded there’s a limit to the pace that we can grow. We also run a bunch of other community programs, and we use the café space to do that. We’ve run a deaf café here, and I’ve also run the same program with deaf people, teaching them how to make coffees, and they’ll then run a project in a café where they’ll teach people Auslan and talk over coffee, as well as other things too.
How important is the service you provide?
We don’t just provide the language skills required to get a job, we don’t just provide the training to get a job — what we provide is a direct path to employment. You walk in here as a trainee and from the day you start working in the kitchen, you get paid. We close the gap, and we get people to the point where they are actually working and getting paid. When they choose to leave, they leave because they’re job ready and have another job. One of our young Iranian guys has gone on to start his own bakery project, and another has gone on to start his own Sri Lankan catering enterprise. We work intensely with a small group of people, because of the strain on our resources, but it really does change their lives. They come out of here thinking: “There’s something I can do, there is a future for me here, I can make my way”. They come out with hope based on experience, and, of course, that paycheck.
HOW CAN YOU GET INVOLVED?
Parliament on King doesn’t receive any government or philanthropic funding — all proceeds come from catering and customers in the community. By simply ordering catering, visiting the café, or booking a private dinner, you can help make sure that the project can keep growing.
— AT HOME WITH PARLIAMENT ON KING —
Try one of the cafe’s favourite recipes for a vegan and gluten free Burmese vegetable curry
3 onions, chopped
3 cloves of garlic
3 – 4 tomatoes, chopped
2 vegetable stock cubes
2 – 3 carrots
1 cup of snow peas
1 can of coconut cream
Salt, turmeric, chilli powder and garlic ginger seasoning
– In a large pot, cook onions in oil with a pinch of salt and stock cubes. When onions are soft, add garlic and continue cooking. Add tomatoes and another pinch of salt to the pot and stir well.
– Stirring continuously, sprinkle in turmeric, carrots and potatoes, and continue to cook at a medium-to-high heat until carrots and potatoes are softened.
– Add chopped broccoli, cauliflower, snow peas and coconut cream, and stir through. Add water for texture and stir well.
– Serve with Basmati rice.