Ironically, the concept for Shanaka Fernando’s pay-what-you-feel vegetarian restaurant started with a chicken. It was the mid-90s and Shanaka, now 44, was travelling through Asia when a Philippino tribe showed him the power of sharing through food. “They killed, cooked and served to me—a complete stranger—the only chicken available,” he recalls. “It made me take note that generosity and trust go hand-in-hand. I learned that people with seemingly the least have an incredible amount to give just by being open, giving people. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was a vegetarian!”
That experience inspired Shanaka to start a restaurant that would be a community venue for marginalised people. When he found an empty shop in St Kilda in 2000, Lentil as Anything took up residence and quickly became an iconic Melbourne food institution. He has since opened two more restaurants, in Abbotsford and Footscray, and the three venues serve at least 2000 people each day. While Lentil as Anything always gets the foodies’ tick for wholesome vegetarian fare, it’s the discretionary pricing system that sets these establishments apart.
A broad clientele ranging from the homeless to businesspeople show up for a healthy vegetarian feed. There are no rules for payment; you’re simply asked to drop a donation into the box on your way out. “I created a space where people can come and be themselves, and experience freedom in a way where money doesn’t influence or condition that freedom,” Shanaka explains.
Growing up in a privileged Sri Lankan home neighbouring one of the biggest slums in Colombo laid the foundation for Shanaka’s compassion and concern for society’s ills. “I think this is the time my initial ideas about injustices and social disparities became clear and took root in my conscience,” he says.
“Scratching beneath the surface, I realised that despite the veneer of poverty there is a very strong culture among seemingly poor people. They really help each other and support each other—the last grain of rice will be offered to the next person, even if the person who cooked it was hungry. I was quite baffled as a young person why this culture of generosity and giving wasn’t the dominant force in the country. Rather, the culture of mistrust, violence and war were.”
After school, Shanaka dabbled in copywriting for the advertising industry before applying for a visa to join his aunt and uncle in Australia. A headstrong 20-year-old, he embarked on a law degree at The University of Melbourne, while also working with Meals on Wheels and as a Luna Park rollercoaster operator. “Melbourne is a fertile ground to create a social movement that may provide a little example of the possibilities,” he smiles of the city he now calls home.
Realising that law wasn’t for him, Shanaka sated his curiosity about community interaction by travelling through the developing world, where he would be given the chicken that fired his ambition. “Travelling taught me so much about how much is really needed to have a great life,” he muses. “In fact, I think the less I have the better my life feels.”
Through Lentil as Anything, Shanaka has proven that sharing food is one of the simplest ways to break down social barriers. “The tribal cultures I visited [taught me] that the sharing of food is a gesture of acceptance and generosity,” he explains. “In the West, food is a commodity—a profit-making entity most of the time.”
Crediting the strong element of trust for the success of his eateries, Shanaka says, “It’s a philosophy that places people above property and encourages people to look for the goodness in everyone. We have made this possible by focusing not on what’s in the wallet, or how you dress or the car you drive to the restaurant, but the sense of character, the passion, the commitment you bring to life.”
During the first three years of Lentil as Anything’s existence, Shanaka lived in a tent on the Port Phillip Bay foreshore. “I wanted to learn what it is to live without money and to submit myself to the environment around me to see what happens,” he reveals. “I found the tent years the most enriching of my life.”
Now with his partner Brooke and small children Grace and Spike to support, he rents a house and takes a weekly $800 allowance from the restaurants. “I don’t have a single asset—I find them a burden. I don’t believe in that kind of ownership.
I think what we own is our actions and who we are as people—our character, our wit and our sense of humour.”
Shanaka’s days start at 3 a.m. when he goes for a three-hour bike ride around Port Phillip Bay to clear his head. “I like the silence—there is minimal machinery and there’s hardly any traffic on the road,” he says. “It’s just me and my bike. It’s a three-hour meditation, really.”
Days are spent helping out in the restaurants, arranging marketing promotions and speaking to media, as well as community groups. “Brooke and I have also set up a community garden; we’re trying to use it as a model to build a bridge between the divided members in our community,” he explains. “We’ve got wealthy members and people who live in housing commissions all working together, churning the soil and growing stuff.”
Shanaka’s tranquil, easygoing nature proves that living with integrity and challenging society’s “rules” can be life-enhancing. “The main reason I’m here today is because I was willing to get out of my comfort zone and have faith in the adventure of life,” he says. “I’m learning something new every moment of every day.”
While Shanaka is a supporter of free food services for people in need, he prefers the Lentil as Anything model because it prevents social isolation. “At the free food services, I see poor people huddled together, whereas at Lentil, you’ll see a broad cross-section of people. It doesn’t make the poor feel like they’re down and out, and it doesn’t make the rich feel a sense of superficial elitism either.”
If there was one thing the world could absorb from the concept, Shanaka says it’s the value of being open-hearted and inquisitive. “Switch off your TV. Go and embrace life,” he suggests. “Be curious about your neighbour—go and learn about them.”
And while you’re at it, he also advises channelling your tribal ancestors. “I think we have to get back to the village-like mentality where we value the sophistication simplicity gives us,” Shanaka believes. “When people are making the most of life, waking up early and doing the things that give them a sense of fulfilment, we don’t need all these [modern] trappings that we reach out for. They are really distractions. Those who live for tomorrow lose today— I’ve carried that for many years.”
Kimberly Gillan is a freelance writer and vinyasa yoga practitioner based in Melbourne.
Serves 4 | Vegan, gluten-free
- 6 dried shiitake mushrooms
- ½ yellow onion, diced
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1cm piece ginger
- 4 tbs olive oil
- 3 tbs kecap manis* (or sweet soy sauce)
- 2 tbs soy sauce*
- 1 tsp red wine vinegar
- Raw sugar, to taste
- ½ cup fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
- 8 baby carrots, peeled, halved
- ½ red capsicum, sliced
- 2 bunches choy sum, chopped, keeping stems and leaves separate
1. To make the shiitake sauce, place the shiitake mushrooms (whole) in a pot, cover with water and simmer over medium heat until soft (up to 30 minutes).
2. Drain the mushrooms and keep the liquid they were cooked in. Blend the mushrooms in a food processor with the onion, garlic and ginger.
3. Heat the oil in a pan and add the puréed shiitake mix. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes.
4. Add the liquid from the soaked mushrooms, the kecap manis, soy sauce, red wine vinegar and a sprinkle of sugar. Cook briefly, taste and add more salt, vinegar and sugar if needed.
5. To make the vegetables, stir-fry the fresh shiitake mushrooms in a separate pan until slightly browned. Add the baby carrots and red capsicum and cook briefly. Add the choy sum stems and cook until just tender. Add the choy sum leaves and cook until wilted.
6. Add 3 tablespoons of the shiitake mushroom sauce to the vegetables. Stir through and serve.
* For a gluten-free stir-fry, choose gluten-free sauces.
Note: The remainder of the sauce can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for several weeks.
Serves 4 | Vegan, gluten-free
- 2 cups (400g) yellow split peas
- 4 1/2 cups (1.2 litres) water
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 2 tsp cumin powder
- 1 tsp sweet paprika
- 3 tsp vegetable oil
- 2 onions, diced
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
- 1 1/2 tsp cumin, whole seeds
- 8 curry leaves
- 3 dried chillies, whole
- 4 whole cardamom pods
- Salt, to taste
- Rice or roti bread, to serve
1. Wash and drain the yellow split peas, then add them to a large pot with the water and bring to a slow simmer. Add the turmeric then cover. Cook for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more water if necessary to avoid drying out and burning. Once the split peas are soft, add the cumin powder and sweet paprika.
2. In a frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat, then add the diced onion, cooking until translucent. Add the cloves, black mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves, dried chillies and cardamom pods. Cook for 4-6 minutes on low heat.
3. Add the spice mixture to the pot of split peas, and simmer for at least 8 minutes, adding salt to taste. Serve with rice or roti bread.
Serves 8 | Gluten-free
- 2 tbs (heaped) dried wakame seaweed
- 2 cups (750ml) warm water
- 1 tbs butter
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, finely diced
- ½ red capsicum, cubed
- ½ yellow capsicum, cubed
- ½ green capsicum, cubed
- 1 cup crimini or button mushrooms, halved
- 1 tbs garlic, crushed
- 1 cup (200g) arborio rice
- ½ cup (125ml) white wine
- 2 tomatoes, puréed
- 1 tbs tomato paste
- 1 tbs soy sauce*
- 250g block unflavoured firm tofu, cubed
- Salt, to taste
- Parsley, chopped, to garnish
1. Soak the wakame seaweed in the warm water until it expands and softens.
2. Place the butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan, wok or paella pan. Add the finely chopped onion and cook on medium heat until soft and brown.
3. Add the capsicum, mushrooms and garlic. Cook until the capsicum is soft and the mushrooms have browned.
4 . Add the arborio rice and sauté until the grains are slightly translucent. Pour in the white wine. Drain the seaweed, keeping the water. Chop the seaweed, then add both the water and the seaweed to the pan.
5. Add puréed tomatoes to the pan along with the tomato paste, soy sauce and a little salt. Taste the liquid and add more salt if needed.
6. Mix well, cover and simmer for approximately 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender. Check occasionally, adding water if necessary to avoid drying out.
7. In a separate pan, brown the tofu cubes in 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle the pan lightly with salt before adding the tofu to help prevent the tofu from sticking.
8. Serve the paella, topped with the tofu cubes and garnished with parsley.
* For gluten free, choose a gluten-free soy sauce.
Note: For vegan, cook with margarine or add a little extra oil instead of butter.