Generous as Anything

A recent autobiography proves the merit of a life lived generously. Margaret Evans speaks with Lentil as Anything founder, Shanaka Fernando.

A recent autobiography proves the merit of a life lived generously. Margaret Evans speaks with Lentil as Anything founder, Shanaka Fernando.

From a childhood of privilege during the worst years of Sri Lanka's vicious ethnic violence to living in a tent on the St Kilda foreshore to sharing the stage with the Dalai Lama on MasterChef, Shanaka Fernando's life has been anything but conventional. In fact, the co author of his recently released autobiography Lentil as Anything, Greg Hill, goes so far as to call him a revolutionary.

As many Victorians would be familiar, Shanaka's revolutionary zeal is of the social and spiritual variety, as he has battled bureaucracy, often bafflement and near bankruptcy to establish his chain of three vegetarian restaurants of the same name. What distinguishes the Lentil as Anything restaurants from other vegetarian eating places is their commitment to a policy of no fixed prices. Now, 12 years after his first restaurant opened its doors in St Kilda, the ethos of inclusiveness and generosity is so entrenched that the three venues feed up to 1500 people a day.

As Shanaka explains to me in his measured but highly engaging way, "We want everyone in our community to be able to eat a meal and to feel valued and cared for without money being a hurdle to that experience." Donation boxes are placed discreetly "so it doesn't bring attention to how much people are donating," or whether they are donating at all. While he has encountered his share of sceptics over the years, including most journalists he tells me who seem baffled that his business could possibly survive, the longevity of his dream testifies to a truth about human nature - deep down, we want to give.

"Lentil as Anything has given people the freedom to make their own judgement and that has revealed an inherent quality of generosity within people. People don't get that opportunity in conventional businesses with fixed prices. If I had a fantastic burger at McDonalds and I thought, 'Wow that's cheap for a burger! I think it's worth a bit more than that', I would like the opportunity to indicate that sense of appreciation," says Shanaka.

And while anecdotal evidence suggests we've tightened our purse strings in the last year or so of tougher economic times, Aussies are still a generous bunch although, says Shanaka, "there's always scope for more". "Australians are very fair minded and very civic minded. And I think that as long as there is clarity of purpose and clarity of intent and sincerity that comes out in what people do, people are always going to support that."

It seems that for many people, the experience of eating at a Lentil restaurant - the others are in Footscray and Collingwood - offers satisfaction that extends beyond the nourishing food on the plate. "I like to think that each one of those people really gets to think about their experience and to question their judgement and get provoked in an extraordinary way into engaging with life and the people around us in a manner that is appreciative of what we bring to community," says this resilient, and very peaceful, revolutionary.

In reading his book I'm struck by his comment about generosity and the grace it seems to bestow on those who give it: "When Lentil remembers the generous spirit it tries to engender within the community, then everything falls into place as though we have a destiny." In contrast, our normal transactional daily life leaves little opportunity for most of us to express our own deepseated desire to give more of ourselves, harried as we are by officialdom and commercial pressures of all sorts.

Shanaka sees it as a missed opportunity. "It is really a shame. I think government and policy makers in general approach individuals and community wth a degree of cynicism and expect people to do the wrong thing rather than expecting people to do the right thing. That can be improved." A telling example from his own experience is that it is illegal for an individual to run a non-profit organisation; it must be run by a committee. Yet anyone who has read his book or is aware of the Lentil philosophy will accept that this is the deepseated drive that has impelled Shanaka over the past 13 tumultuous years.

"It's a shame that such attitudes exist and in the echelons that we rely on for guidance through deep education and understanding. I hope that changes. I think people should be allowed to be themselves and be encouraged to contribute to society through their own sense of judgement. We do that in a little way by allowing people to pay whatever they want."

Even over the phone, Shanaka sweeps me up with his enthusiasm: "How many people have come up to me and said, 'Gosh when I was at university and struggling, or I was going through drug addiction and I was really struggling and Lentil was the one place I could come and have a nice nutritious meal and feel like I'm part of the community still. Now I'm doing well and I always give back and I donate $50 when I have a meal there.' That kind of gratitude and awareness is a great thing to see happening."

Refugees are an important part of the fabric of the Lentil experience, and many have passed through its doors, either as customers or volunteer helpers, many taking on a helping role as they become more settled in society. Given the current debate over people seeking asylum in our country, a debate that will only intensify as more and more people seek refuge from homelands that are fraught with civil and economic strife and encroaching climate change, it's an example to the more sceptical that's it's not necessarily all one way traffic.

Says Shanaka: "Life offers an occasion for us to challenge our perceptions and to abandon cliches and to have exciting and unexpected experiences through that attitude." Twelve years ago, establishing a venue for marginalised people was one of his key aims but, ever unconventional, he believes that description applies to us all to some degree but some of us have fewer opportunities than others.

"The refugee community, in particular, have endured enormous trauma in their home countries and getting to Australia in some cases, and also their experiences of being incarcerated in detention centres until their claims are proven. Despite all this hardship, these people take nothing for granted and they want to contribute and want to show their appreciation and generosity to this new country.

"What Lentil does is try, in a little way, to show that by being open and inclusive and offering opportunities to these people, we actually benefit from their culture and their values and their want to give."

The other core belief of the Lentil approach is vegetarianism and, even here, Shanaka has been inspired by a spirit of inclusiveness. In speaking with him, for the first time I realise just how inclusive this food philosophy is - anyone can eat a vegetarian meal without fear of breaking cultural or religious taboos. St Kilda with its large Jewish population was a perfect choice for the first Lentil because "being vegetarian, they wouldn't have kosher concerns." The second restaurant (now closed) was in "Brunswick where there was a large Moslem community and they wouldn't have Halal concerns." We share a laugh at this neat solution to one of the world's most intransigent divides.

"Interestingly, I think being vegetarian was the most inclusive model I could think of with the added health benefits and also the fact that it appeals to my personal sense of ethics of living a life that is not violent and ensures sustainable food choices as well." The whole experience can be unexpected fun even for the most resistant eater, he suggests. "Even an absolute carnivore would find it a bit of an adventure to come and have a vegetarian meal and see if it actually appeals to them . And it does! They are quite surprised by the flavour and quality of the meal."

After a recent experiment in divesting himself from some of the day to day pressures of running a $2 million turnover business with many diverse staff and volunteers with predawn starts and late night finishes, by appointing a board, Shanaka has once again taken back the reins to get back to the core values of the organisation. The proviso for any new board appointees is that they get a taste of what it means to work in a restaurant, "washing dishes, waiting on tables so they get an idea of the culture they actually need to work to preserve rather than impose their view on it." I sense the fierce determination to preserve the Lentil As Anything dream as it was originally envisaged.

The future looks full of the variety and adventure that have been part and parcel of Shanaka Fernando's life. One project is a schools education program to take the Lentil philosophy into primary schools around Australia and another is a personal invitation from the Dalai Lama to participate in a video illustrating the oneness of humanity. It seems the days living in a tent on the beach are well behind him and the future beckons invitingly.