14 June, 2024


Shanaka’s Utopia In Melbourne: ‘Lentil As Anything’

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

It is a crazy idea but it works. Shanaka Fernando is a Sri Lankan origin migrant living in Melbourne, Australia. Although he is my ‘namesake,’ we are not relatives. I didn’t know him personality until the last meeting and only acquaintance was through information. He perhaps didn’t know about me, but I knew about him because of his ‘Lentil as Anything.’

‘Lentil as Anything’ is a multicultural and refugee friendly ‘not for profit’ restaurant network with three outlets in Melbourne metropolitan area, at St Kilda, Footscray and Abbotsford. ‘Pay as you feel’ is the principle. There is a big wooden box like a till for people to contribute. I had the pleasing opportunity to visit his outlet in Abbotsford, thanks to my friend, Saman Halgamuge (Professor of Engineering at the University of Melbourne). He took me there for lunch when I visited Melbourne recently. I ate the stuff and it was good, rather excellent. We met Shanaka briefly and he was there at Abbotsford.

I asked Shanaka why it is ‘not for profit’ and he said “I believe in people’s honesty and generosity. I trust them. ” Then I quipped, “Is that the case in Sri Lanka?” Then he replied, “That’s in politics, but not in ordinary life.” Although I was not sure about the second remark, or he didn’t either, we kept talking. He had to leave soon as he had to fetch his daughter from school and he is apparently a good family man also.

From all counts, the place appeared Pop, very much similar to some restaurants in Balmain area in Sydney, Inner-West, I am familiar with. I remember a restaurant called ‘death by chocolate,’ some time back, where you can go and pay a sum, I think it was $ 15 that time, and eat or drink as much as chocolates, of different exquisite varieties, as you can. That was like our old Hospital Street Jaffna Hotels in Fort, where we used to go and pay just Rs 1.20 and eat as much as you can.

LFShanaka’s joint also reminded me the Jaffna Hotels in another respect. It was completely vegetarian, the animal rights and health matters are all respected. It also reminded me our Parippu, the old delicacy of our childhood. But at ‘Lentils,’ there were all kinds of lentils and many other vegetarian food items. One can also say, it is like a ‘parippu dansala’ but with a difference. Shanaka also brought the concept of ‘dansala’ to the discussion. But obviously complete free meals cannot be served every day and it is not at all necessary in Australia. People are asked to make a reasonable donation. Some apparently give more, some less of the cost. The three restaurants cater to over 3,000 customers per day, Shanaka told us. When we were there at Abbotsford, there were around 100 people eating.

It was a pleasing atmosphere quite serene with the former Abbotsford Convent in the background and being part of the old building. It was a multicultural place in its true sense. There was light music playing, changing from one cultural tradition to the other. ‘OneMan’ Celtic band playing on some days. This is what I heard from others. When we entered, there was a corridor with dim lights and no reception. Walls were decorated with paintings and artefacts of different cultures. Then we turned left to the main serving area with buffet arrangements. Perhaps it was the nun’s old dining room before. There were about fifteen people before us in the queue. We served ourselves our meals from a number of delicious dishes as we liked and several attendants were filling the utensils in a quick succession. We could see the kitchen area behind, several cooks with their white aprons and hoods, like in any other restaurant, attending to their chorus. There was a seating area in the main hall with woodwork tables and benches, but Saman preferred to go outside and sit. There were tables and chairs with umbrellas covering the sun in the advancing summer.

LF2There were waiters or rather waitresses only collecting dishes and used cutlery and cleaning the tables. They also bring water for you if you ask or didn’t collect yourself! The idea is for you to help yourself. I asked Shanaka whether they have ‘too many cooks,’ so to say. Because I have seen a web comment on the venture saying that it once got bankrupt because of debt and the commenter opined perhaps too many people are working at the restaurant. Shanaka said that there are around 150 people working at all three places but half of them are volunteers. They also have trainees to learn professional cooking, catering and other restaurant services. ‘The Lentils’ help the new migrants and refugees, and many others, that way.

‘Lentil’ at St Kilda is where it all started in 2000. St Kilda is situated on one of the picturesque points in the Melbourne Bay not very far from the city. As its website said,

An idea of meals without borders took root here. ‘Lentil St Kilda’ is a venue where the previously marginalized, fashioned the standard. Care took a new form. Pride, ownership and struggle blended uniquely. Sincerely filled the shoes of convention and Lasagna came with a Roti and Chai. Becky from the Mavis on the coffee-machine – Soma from Sri Lanka at the stove.”

Be sure, ‘Mavis’ is not an unknown country like Sri Lanka, but a pop music group in Victoria. There are many volunteers and social workers involved, but no government or church funding like in other NGOs.

Shanaka Fernando was born to a Sinhalese father and an Irish mother in 1968 and brought up at Thimbirigasyaya, Colombo. He had attended Ananda College like Saman, but much later. It was at the age of 30 that he had moved to Melbourne in 1998 to study law but had dropped out to involve in other adventures including his idea of ‘pay as you please’ restaurant. One time he was living in a tent, along the banks of the Yarra River, but perhaps not during winter! Now he lives in a modest house keeping all doors open, with his second partner, and a daughter and a son. He has extensively travelled in Asia and Latin America and has a deep respect for the indigenous people and the villagers as they live closer to the nature.

Now he is 45, but still young in his ideas and habits. He has always been a party man but not at all taken into drinks or drugs. He rather helps people to move away from those habits. He has an unmistakable penchant for banter and humor and those are a part of his life and ideology. He has also taken into public speaking and even to become an amateur comedian. If the following link could be clicked successfully you may see for yourself of what the man speaks of himself and on social issues.

In many interviews that he has given, Shanaka says that he has a bigoted upbringing in Sri Lanka in his middle class urban family. One is against the Tamils or the minorities as enemies or threats, while the reality was often otherwise. He sadly recollects the events in July 1983. Another one is against the poor and the village people as outcastes or a nuisance. What is lacking is a humanist approach to these issues from the majority and the upper classes. He is in this sense a rebellor (though not correct spelling!) against his own background.

LF1Once he was running a school restaurant successfully. The kids were the most enthusiastic about his concept of ‘pay as you can,’ paying from their meal or pocket money given by the parents. See also the following link to follow the thread of thought.

Shanaka as many of his ilk has had ups and downs. In 2007, he was awarded the Australian of the Year. He was running five restaurants and a school canteen. Then came the crunch. There were criticisms, and all about his hypocrisy. Perhaps he was largely misunderstood because of his, sometimes unsavory, jokes. There was an adverse SBS documentary, ‘The Naked Lentil.’ Then he became bankrupt around 2010. Perhaps he lacked enough managerial or business skills. But that was not his interest. During the last two years, however, there is again a resurgence of his concept of lentils or parippu.

I became interested in Shanaka and his ‘Lentils’ because of his Utopian views. I was struck by the fact that many Utopian views since Thomas More (1468-1535) are similar, giving priority to the good side of the human nature, believing in people sometimes quite naively, experimenting things or advocating experiments of new ideas etc. and etc. I also recollect Chalo Mahattaya (Mr. Chalo) at Bulathsinghala in the mid-1960s who advocated ‘governance without a government’ based on community spirit and goodwill of the people. Perhaps he was more of an anarchist than a utopian or anarchism is one trait of utopianism. Many Utopians also were with a high sense of humor; this was there in Thomas More and this is there in Shanaka.

I asked Shanaka whether he has any plans to export the idea to Sri Lanka. He smiled and asked “doesn’t it come from Sri Lanka?” Yes, he is keen in setting up the experiment, if there are good takers to organize. We said (Saman and I) that it can be a part of the reconciliation process where Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims meet and share a meal and ‘reconcile.’ Heated arguments might vain. Shanaka has mentioned that an Irishman came some years back and took the idea into Killarney where it is not called Lentil but “Pay as You Feel” directly. There are of course similar or parallel ventures. Bon Jovi has opened a series of restaurants called ‘Soul Kitchen’ in America. Shanaka has written his biography also called “Lentil as Anything,” subtitled “Everybody Deserves a Place at the Table.”

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Shanaka is welcome to try multiculturalism among the Sinhala petty bourgeois who are hard core racists.. and supporters of Gota the goon and Balu Sena.. They are as hard core as the White Australia racists..

    There are lots of Pakistani Christian refugees in transit from Pakistan in Sri Lanka today, because the Pak Islamists are persecuting minorities – the same model that Gota the goon is now following in Lanka. A pay as you go restaurant may be helpful..

    There is a lot of everyday multiculturalism in cities in Lanka, it just does not catch the headlines..

  • 3

    I used to know this guy when he was living in SL. Was a dreamer without much grounding back then. Watched him once on TV talking about going bankrupt with his restaurant. Sounds still like an idealist dreamer to me. In concept it is fine but unfortunately cannot work in the long term.

  • 0

    Double prof are you running out of ideas?You have given up the idea of bringing that war criminal JARAPAKSE,to face the music who bumped off that wonderful human being Prabakaran?Never give up hope.David might pull it off in Geneva.If that fails our double madams Dharshika,Pinto and Thissaranee might do the needful.Specially with that UNP leadership council led by the pious Karunarathna Jayasuriya we might stand a chance.Whatever it is double proff,i am with you,some how we have to get rid of that Jarapakse character for bumping off that wonderful human being Prabakaran!

    • 3

      Max Silva,
      Jarapakse not only bumped Prabhakaran but also Gen.Sarath Fonseka the war hero who won the LTTE war and CJ Shirani Bandaranayake the only well qualified Female CJ. Also where abouts of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Prageeth Ekneligoda,Kuram and hundreds of other journalists and reporters are not known up to now. Only now the PSC’s are working on to find on whereabouts of over 40,000 missing tamils at the end of the war.

      Australia and the west gave the opportunity to Shanaka fernando and thousands of other Sri Lankans to bring their talents to the world to see when the Sinhala Racist Buddhist Political thugs who are only after commissions,bribery, Pin Padi, easy money and corruptions will never give those opportunities to anybody other than to their own family and Party cartel mafia organization.Please check into what happened to Tsunami Jack pot scandal and what happened to VP’s 700 million rupee Nothern Presidential election Bribery. Where is Karuna and KP now.
      Hope you will understand the difference.

    • 0

      what’s the RELAVANCE of your crap here ? !

    • 2

      Are You Planning /Going to bump off that Peace loving, God fearing, Lord Buddha Worshipping,
      Every Poya Day Dasa Sill Observing,
      Buddhist Principle following,
      Going to be the Next The Second Buddha After Maithree Buddha,
      THAT World Wealth Chairman,
      wonderful human being F KING Rajapassa?????.

      send me Any Contact to The Other wonderful human being GOOOHOTHA.

  • 1

    Lentil as Anything but not for Dude another extremists.

  • 2

    Dear Prof. Laksiri,

    We are expecting something more than this. As far as I know you are an excellent and one of the most senior Political Scientists in the country.
    We as readers of you, are expecting your original arguments in relation to current political issues such as Religious Extremism, Fascist Rajapakshaism, State Corruption, Gota’s Presidency,International warning against Sri Lanka, Human Rights Violation etc.. with theoretical introductions. This may helpful for both the students and the ordinary readers.

    Further, Sir, it is very much appreciated if you could write an article about the University Teaching. It is not lie that the lecturers still teaching in the universities using the notes what they have studied in 80s and 90s. Sorry to say, including your department (UOC).

    • 1

      Dear MSA,

      I appreciate your concern but it is my belief that people should have a rounded view of life with varied experiences and happenings without confining to pure politics. This is also what you mean by teachers teaching beyond their old lecture notes. I think Sri Lankans have a too much obsession with pure politics. Other people are not like that. This is worst among SL expatriates. I first observed this when I was living abroad in mid-1980s. Even when people go to a party they talk politics, particularly men. I think it is a life weakness. That is one reason why our political culture is so heated. When I came back to Sri Lanka, I was saying that we need to pour a lot of cold water on politics, I do feel the same now. Even previously I have written on lighter matters. Perhaps you were upset about my particular style of writing. I am just experimenting! Anyway, for Sri Lanka to take a lateral turn in the present situation, particularly on the ethnic question, experiments or initiatives like Shanaka Fernando is important wherever we live.

      As to your second point on university teaching, I largely agree with you. But there are good people as well. It is not an ailment only at UOC but everywhere. I attribute three main reasons for the situation. First is the inbreeding or bias in recruitment. Second is incompetence in English. Third perhaps is the involvement in sectarian politics which prevents overcoming the second weakness, or using it as an escape route from the second.

      When I was writing this particular ‘story,’ I was also thinking about Christmas time to make readers’ attention out of heavy matters. Perhaps it was not that successful. Anyway, Merry Christmas in an interfaith or secular manner.

      • 0

        Thanks for the response.

    • 2


      On your major point about the character of the regime or what you call ‘Rajapaksaism,’ I do think that we have a new problematic. All others of religious extremism, state extortion (not mere corruption), human rights violations etc. may spring from that. The major element is state coercion. I have observed but not yet written about is the negation of the SLFP past or Kumaratunga heritage in the last budget speech. I also think that we may need to take an ‘emotional free’ view of the situation given the changing international power balance. By the way, thanks for raising the issue.

      • 1

        Dear Sir, Prof Laksiri,
        I was Following many articles, that you were Writing to The C T,
        I feel, It very important to Get those Writings and Ideas, Feelings to the Ordinary People like us,
        as we are not in the capacity of the education of academics and /or intellectuals as they,who are more educated and they read all these blogs and many internet web pages.
        I would like you to propose that, IF POSSIBLE of you to send those articles to SINHALA and Tamil news papers who not Bias to any political parties or religions to publish their Translation to get our people some education of any kind.
        be it social or political. But some kind of education.
        Because most of these free thinking, unbiased, gainful and truthful Ideas are not reaching Sinhala and Tamil Readers.
        And we appreciate that the services you all are doing to Sri Lankan society even now.
        As we see today, what is happening to our Free education is very Pathetic. They are destroying the free education and creating a total disasters system of education depriving the education to our poor kids.
        and I totally agree with Mr MSA.
        I hope you may consider what I am trying to say to You all Sri lankan diaspora , who are educated.

        Merry Christmas and Happy new year To you all.
        and further,
        I ask for,May Triple Gem’s Blessings for you all, too

  • 2

    I see no difference between Prabakaran and Rajapakse!!! It is as simple as that!! In a way it is even WORSE because Rajapakse has legitimized his TERROR by vote rigging, thuggery, murders, disappearance and making his rule as a FAMILY RULE!! All his family members are equally TERRORISTS!!!

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