MasterChef contestants are used to battling extreme kitchen challenges but a local group of home cooks have battled even more serious life challenges such as homelessness, isolation and mental health issues. Cook and Chat, a new program developed by the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre Boarding House Outreach Service (BHOS), brings together socially isolated boarding house residents to learn how to plan, prepare and cook nutritious and nourishing meals.
Photos: Diana Shypula
“We have ended up with a guy who is an absolute master chef: PJ. He is a natural. The other participants come and ask him questions. He really gets them involved and answers all their cooking questions," BHOS caseworker Jay said.
"Some of the other participants prefer to sit at the table and talk about the footy while chopping up ingredients. So everyone has found their role.”
Jay was inspired to start the program after noticing that boarding house residents often lack cooking skills, good nutrition and independent living skills in general.
“A lot of residents don’t have the opportunity to cook in their boarding houses. Some of the shared kitchens are in a bad state, and a lot of people haven't been taught cooking skills. They might have a history of rough sleeping or challenging mental health issues, or emotionally it might just seem all too hard,” Jay said.
MasterChef PJ said he loved cooking and being able to share his skills with others.
“Sharing food is one of the best ways to connect with someone because you are hearing from people and learning what they like and what they don’ t like.
The group has been amazing. Everyone gets along and we've all been really respectful of each other,” PJ said.
The group has been meeting once a week for 10 weeks to cook lunch together. The recipes for these ‘elaborate’ meals with lots of ingredients are simplified so they can be easily repeated at home, once the leftovers are finished! Cooking and eating together has inspired some great conversations about food and what people ate growing up.
“There’ s been lots of talking about food and rugby league, but not everyone agrees on the rugby league,” Jay said.
One of the positive outcomes has been the social interaction. “It has become a good social event and people have formed friendships. A lot of these people are quite socially isolated so it is good to see them talking. Some of these people would never normally commit to attending something like this and they’ve been here every week,” Jay said.
Several participants are now coming to monthly NNC outings and accessing more services.
Each week participants discuss what they will cook and what everyone’ s role will be, with everyone having the opportunity to do different tasks. The group votes on what to cook next.
One of the recipe suggestions was for curried sausages, which had Jay nervous. “I'm not a fan and I thought, ‘Oh, here we go,’ but it was amazing. They fried a heap of fresh apple, cooked it right down and made the sauce. It was spot on. There has not been a bad meal, and everyone has been really stoked,” Jay said.
The program has been supported by a small ClubGrant community grant from Petersham RSL.
“For me the best thing about running the program has been watching participants come back every week. It really warms my heart and shows me that they are getting something out of it,” Jay said. “It has just been good to share stories and be social. It is one of those groups that has just worked,” he said.
And the participants are already looking forward to the next program.
Paul said that he enjoyed getting out and about, meeting new people and cooking with them.
Geoff said he found the program really interesting: “I’m not the world's greatest cook so I’ve learnt a fair bit. On a sociable level it has been great. It’s the best day of the week! One of the biggest things I’ve learnt is importance of hygiene, washing your hands and wearing gloves.”
Hamilton, student social worker with NNC, said coming along to the group had inspired him to cook more at home because it now felt like less of a chore.
“I've learnt that it can be surprisingly easy to make simple and enjoyable meals, and it’s reinforced the joy of cooking and eating with other people.”
“Food is very evocative. It puts you in a place that is comfortable and nostalgic. I feel really lucky to be able to listen to other people share their experiences around food and their memories from childhood. It has just been a really unpretentious environment where nobody is judged and people are free to come and be themselves,” Hamilton said.
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