Lentil as Anything at the Abbotsford Convent

Now it’s possible that this is a photo of Argentinian pataphysicist Hernan Palacio, of whom more anon. After Sunday’s breakfast, I walked to the Convent and rambled around and dreamt of something which does not feature prominently in the plans I have seen published by the Abbotsford Convent Foundation, namely the filling up of the empty swimming pool and its conversion into a magnificently beautiful public pool with sunlounges made of that beautiful striped French canvas which has recently reached our shores, with little taps in their arms which would pour beers into glasses made by the glassworks inside in return for a dollar coin which would activate a valve in a pipe direct from the brewery running beneath the majestic River Yarra with its source in a vat of a special brew created and reserved only for the Convent, and tapas in banana leaf packages in a new kind of vending machine made of bamboo, and very early afternoon hula dancing classes fueled by Tequila. But I digress. I popped my head into Lentil as Anything once I had peered through the window of the wood fired bakery-to-be and realised that the once-advertised and much-anticipated-by-me July opening was about as accurate as a Connex Epping line timetable. Dear readers, it comes after all that, to this: I liked what I saw.Even though I like vegetables, vegetarians, anarchists, and even lentils, the combination of all four had struck me as not a sensible choice for the first food outlet at the Convent, a place with an uncertain economic future which probably did not need to be associated unnecessarily with lentils and anarchy. Now I have revised my opinion to either brave or not sensible, time will tell. But I am optimistic. The place was humming along and there was reassuringly normal food on the menu. In short, I can’t wait to go back and have a banana pancake and a good coffee. I have reproduced below all but the most excruciating bits of a surely-too-earnest- for-Palacio article in Issue 6 of the “Abbotsford Convent Muse”, a periodical with a need for a new name.

The Interview: Hernan Palacio, Community and Cultural Development Coordinator, Lentil as Anything Vegetarian Restaurant at the Convent

Lentils is a little different to most commercial operations; perhaps we could start by talking about what drives the organisation? Well, you are right: Lentils is certainly not the standard capitalist model. This is most obviously demonstrated in the policy we have for charging for our food. We have no fixed prices but simply ask that patrons pay what they feel the meal was worth, or what they can afford. This philosophy might seem improbable in our society but it has worked successfully at our St Kilda and the four other outlets we have developed over the past five years. We are a multicultural group where difference is valued. Our ‘mission statement’ is two fold. Firstly, we seek to provide a platform to develop alternatives for social sustainability; secondly, we are committed to demonstrating that there are alternatives to the standard capitalist system.

Does your role reflect the rather different operating philosophy of Lentils? Very much. We do not have a standard hierarchical model of management and our roles are not ‘sharp-edged’. The anarchist model informs our ideals – we operate as a coop- erative, with our individual roles to a degree self-defined. This means that in a busy and multi-faceted operation like this, there are things going on that I don’t know about – and that’s good!

Why has the group chosen to use a food operation to put your ideals into practice? Food is a primary necessity. Around the globe, everyone eats; everyone cooks. We work with symbols quite a lot. Food is symbolically and practically a powerful medium of inclusiveness. People come to Australia with nothing – they are ‘back to zero’. In a sense, we offer the opportunity to share cultures through food. We are seeking to provide an alternative for hopelessness and desperation in society.

What attracted Lentils to the Convent?
We have been at St Kilda for five years and the gentrification of the area is making it difficult for us to interact with the neighbourhood as we have done. Yuppies moving in have paid big dollars for apartments and many of them were concerned at our regular street performance ‘Lentil Bash’ as it sometimes took over a couple of street parking places, for example. It was time for a new start. … we now have space to establish a big commercial kitchen that will allow us to enhance our skill share program for new arrivals. We have space for training, space for performance, space to run school holiday programs.

How many seats do you have in the restaurant? We can seat 150. On the Opening Night at the end of May we fed 300 people over 2 hours. We had 20 people helping in the kitchen; because we are a collective organisation the resources we needed just flowed in.

Do you have a sense of from where you draw your diners? Lentils are well established now and the vegetarian community has been a great supporter at St Kilda and our other locations. We attract people from all over Melbourne and we know many have come to check out the new location and the Convent. We also have terrific support from the local community.

There is obviously more to Lentils than food… Food is the ‘vehicle’ that allows us to implement our programs, to do our real work. We run a magazine – The Lentil Republic – that is the only Arabic/English journal of its type. As I mentioned, we run school holiday programs; we run Community Days with various newly arrived communities, with their own music, dancing and food. We also conduct weekly workshops with the people in the NMIT program at the Convent. We are committed to community arts and seek out projects that bring people together in creative activities. For example, we are working on a proposal for the decoration of the outdoor tables here in a way that tells the stories of people who have come to this place. The Lentil Bash event – performance and poetry – has attracted a great following over the years. This year it was part of the St Kilda Writers Festival. Last year we were one of the
music venues for the St Kilda Festival. Lentil Bash is now a regular event here at the Convent – on the first Sunday of every month at 7pm. There will be spoken word, music, performance, open mic opportunities. As we say, unexpect the expected!

How can members of the community become more involved with the work of Lentils? We welcome members. It costs just $50 per year and members can help out in the kitchen!

3 Replies to “Lentil as Anything at the Abbotsford Convent”

  1. How does food safety and hygiene fit into an anarchist collective environment though. When I read the guy saying that “there are things going on here that I don’t know about and that’s good”, I picture some guy letting his little kid with a runny nose stir the soup. That sort of thing. Not suggesting that really happens at the Lentin Commune of course. Just sayin’ every sociopolitical model has its flaws… and its snot 😉

    1. dan,

      i guess anarchists are not all absolutists. many tolerate a relative degree of conformity to rules, particularly those apparently of the less-arbitrary type, such as food hygiene practices.

      many identify as anarchists as a relative term, ie more like an anarchist, than like a fascist. fascists are the ones who more commonly have a need to define things in absolutes, including themselves. anarchists, meh ~

      oh, and i guess the first thing any anarchist would tell you about anarchy, is you really gotta think for yourself, and communicate with people close to you. what we call 'laws of nature' are not negotiable, food hygiene falls in this category.

      do you really think accepting personal responsibility for all your own decisions is a recipe for blithe idiocy?

      'each one teach one' sounds like anarchist propaganda to me, you think methodology like that leads to better or worse cooks than dull classrooms where students are made to learn what does not interest them, dull workplaces where people robotically perform jobs they hate, and rulebooks full of arbitrary laws which engender active rebellion and apathy? 😉

      just sayin', you know!

  2. dan,

    i guess anarchists are not all absolutists. many tolerate a relative degree of conformity to rules, particularly those apparently of the less-arbitrary type, such as food hygiene practices.

    many identify as anarchists as a relative term, ie more like an anarchist, than like a fascist. fascists are the ones who more commonly have a need to define things in absolutes, including themselves. anarchists, meh ~

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