The forum was held one fine, sunny day at the not for profit Peppertree Café. It was held jointly by Metro Assist, the migrant resettlement service provider, and the Bankstown Multicultural Youth Service. This culinary establishment is a project of the Service.
I was met by Nick, my handler from Metro Assist, who escorted me inside. The Café, at Bankstown, is designed to help disadvantaged young people get a start in their hospitality career. It gives direction to recently arrived migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Staff must each commit to a minimum three-month stint. the café bridges the gap between short-term work placements and full-time jobs. Before joining ‘Peppertree’, staff must study at TAFE, the NSW vocational education and training provider. Then they must prove themselves during work placements in commercial kitchens elsewhere.
‘What criteria do you use for choosing candidates?’ I asked the manager.
‘We don’t look for the most employable candidate or the least employable one. We try to identify who needs this experience the most, to uncover the reasons why things haven’t worked out for them so far. At the same time, we have to see a spark. There’s got to be something there, something we can bring out and work with. And we have to believe they’re ready to take this on. It requires they work their tails off. We need a core who we’re pretty sure are going to make it. We can’t take just the hard cases. So, we walk a tightrope. They walk a tightrope, too, once the apprentices actually start in the kitchen. Work has to be fast and accurate,’ he added. ‘Chefs are short and sharp. It’s hot, stressful, tempers fray.’
‘Can you sort them out before they sign on? Is there an acid test to go by?’
‘We give them a taste test. We don’t expect them to say what they’re eating,’ he said, ‘just to describe it. Salty, bitter, sweet as well as acid. They need to be open to tasting new things. We need a sense they’re interested in food; this is a professional kitchen.’
Of course they need to know that kitchens may not always be professionally run. There was a restaurant down by the river in Parramatta. Right by the water, it boasted the slogan ‘Everything Caught on Premises’. It turned out that this included gastroenteritis, hepatitis and food poisoning.
Young artists and musicians are able to exhibit and perform at Peppertree, whose name refers to trees that grow on a local historical property.
The café likes to be known for its do-gooder vibes and where one can simply sit back in its rustic industrial décor with sanded-back brick walls, pendant lights and raw plywood hiding a concrete ceiling. Patrons can enjoy some contemporary café fare in a chilled environment. The menu offers fresh, light fare including soups, cakes and grills as well as takeaway.
As the café was set up to provide employment readiness training this included being knowledgeable and dealing with the widest variety of clientele. While the mornings business was being sorted out, I decided to put one staff member on duty to the test while I ordered an industrial strength brunch.
Unsure how kosher certain foods were and how politics went down in this neck of the multicultural woods, looking for clues, I jotted down ‘Pork Eating’ on a serviette and asked her ‘How do you feel about serving this here?
She replied, ‘He’s welcome here at any time.’
She knew that this was the homeground of our former Prime Minister and investor in a piggery, Paul Keating. She knew this was how some locals pronounce his name.’
‘When he came’, she said, we offered him the Magical Mystery Meal.’
After he finished, he wrote on a serviette, ‘Whale oil beef hooked-it’s gammon.’
‘I said, ‘Yes, it is gammon.’
‘But we don’t use whale oil and it’s not beef that’s been hanging at the abattoir.’
‘Mr. Keating is famous for his Irish wit,’ I explained. ‘What he means is that the meal was both a surprise and a pleasure.’
‘Please, what means ‘gammon’?’
‘It has two meanings. It means ham which has been cured or smoked like bacon. Secondly this is a Victorian era English word for pretend. It is one still used by some Australian Aboriginal people to mean ‘joking’ generally. This word is now gaining usage elsewhere in Australia thanks in no small part to Mr. Keating. He sharpened his gammoning –usually pronounced Gam’in’- skills while conferring with northern tribal leaders. Does he come here often?’
‘Not often. When he dropped in he was attending a movie upstairs at the cinema.’
‘ ‘Can you remember the title?’
‘ ‘Howard’s End.’
Now I knew the menu satisfied my catholic tastes, I proceeded to the second part of the test. I suggested to her I play the part of a mute patron. Instead of wasting words, I then asked for precisely what I wanted. I wrote on the serviette:‘F U N E M N X?’
Without blinking an eyelid, she came back immediately with the reply: ‘S, V F M N X.’
F.U.N.E.T.?’I wrote and held up.
‘S.V.F.T.’ she wrote in reply, adding more to check my order was correct.
‘What kind of code is that?’ asked a puzzled patron next to me. I translated for her the exchange. The first was my question:
‘Have you any ham and eggs?’
The final order she wrote on her pad was ‘O.K. Ham and eggs and tea for one.’
During my meal I thanked my fellow creatures for what they had sacrificed. A day’s work for a chicken, a lifetime commitment for a pig.
As she hovered around, I asked the waitress, ‘What do you think came first? The chicken or the egg?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘It’s important to see things as they are. On one hand you have an awkward feathered thing and on the other you have the most perfect aerodynamic shape that’s ever evolved. The answer is obvious, right?
‘It’s the egg, not the chicken, right?’
‘On whether you’re having breakfast or dinner.’
Afterwards, still peckish, I decided to have some of both as this was my brunch. I ordered a chicken sandwich. Five minutes later the waitress came up to check for details.
She asked, ‘How would you like your eggs?’ She had obviously confused this order with the earlier one. I could see the link.
I said, “Incubated. Then raised, beheaded, and plucked. then cut up, put onto a grill, and then served between two slices of bread. Don’t worry. It’s going to take too long. I’ll just have toast, baked beans and spam.’
‘Coming up, Sir. Toast and baked beans. I’m sorry we don’t have any wonderful spam.’
‘What, no gelatinous glazed pig entrails about. No swine eyes, tongue and snout. No gourmet delight congealed by fire, mottled with pork fat and gristle.’
‘I’m afraid not. If you want anything else, just whistle.’
After this nourishing fare, treated to the highest standards of hospitality service, I met up with a charming group of Levantine ladies to show my work and tell of my experience.
We sat at a large communal table while around the windows was placed bench seating with colourful cushions and black leather seats with no sides or backs .
‘Ottomans. A reminder of my home country’s furniture,’ said a Turkish lady, ‘named for its Empire which Australia helped put down. Gone. Pouf!’ We talked about the specific shortcomings of the education system in Australia and the tragedy deepening throughout the Levant and beyond. I told them how this was an area I’d travelled through during happier days and now write about.
We talked about the connection between all the problems, both here and at the eye of the storm. We talked about how our capacity to maintain social harmony here is being stretched along orthodox lines and the need to involve everyone in raising the level of popular literacy and knowledge in a global way. The inevitable question arose: ‘How can we teach a working knowledge of English and our culture to those escaping the eye of the storm if we cannot to our own?’ Mercifully the ladies understand that those escaping come from traditional cultures and are mostly highly respectful of the educational process, something we can learn from.
The Truckie, the Tamil and the Teacher.
Paolo needs to improve his English so as to be able to carry on his work as a truck driver in Australia. I made up a conversation group with him and Kodees, a Tamil refugee at Strathfield Community Centre. After hearing Paolo speak, I realised my knowledge of cinematic Italian American English would provide a bridge to communication. We were interested in finding out about his work and experiences in this area.
‘iamo – let’s go!’ I declared.
‘You must have interesting stories to tell about this, Paolo. About you and others.’
‘About much others.’
‘Paolo, much means ‘a lot of’. ‘Many means ‘a large number of.’
‘I always get these mixed up. Thanks for explaining it to me. It means a lot.’
‘Could you tell us some of your stories?’
‘Now where can I start?’ he asked, scratching his head.
‘O.K. What kind of goods did you carry?’
‘All kinds of stuff you name it, I’ve carried it. Cement, tiles, food et cetera.’
‘What were some of your most interesting assignments?’
‘Well, there was the time I was pushing this 18-wheeler along the Autostrada. At every red light, I had to get out of my cabin, run back and bang on the truck door. Other motorists were very puzzled to see me doing this. Can you guess what I had on board?’
Neither Kodees nor I could guess what he was carrying.
‘I give up,’ I said.
‘Me too’, said Kodees.
‘I had twenty tonnes of budgerigars and a ten tonne limit, so I had to keep half of them flying at all times.”
‘Minch’ – wow! You have to be aware of the cargo’s weight. Did you ever carry any heavier loads than this aviary?’
‘I did. You won’t believe what it was. Neither did the police.’
‘Was it an elephant?’ asked Kodees.
‘Listen. One day I was heading along the road. A sign came up that read “Low Bridge Ahead”’. I didn’t see any police so I drove on. Before I knew it, the bridge was right ahead of me and muggins me got stuck under it. This was a real pain in the—.
‘Pain in the neck’, I added discreetly. ‘A real scorchamend’.
I-malano-miau! – I couldn’t believe it! Cars were backed up for miles.
Finally, a carload of carabinieri pulled up. One cop got out of his car and walked around to me put, his hands on his hips and said, ‘What is this? Ma che quest’? Got stuck huh?”
“No, I was delivering this bridge and ran out of diesel.”
‘You always have to calculate how much space you have before you drive under bridges and through tunnels,’ I said.
What about dangerous cargo?’ Did you ever carry anything more dangerous than a load of buzzing budgies?’.
‘Yes. radioactive waste. I used to deliver it for the local reactor.’
‘That sounds risky.’
‘Si. Molto pericoloso. Como se dice—dangerous. This stuff is disgust—‘
‘This stuff is disgusting.’
‘Did it affect your health?’
‘Maronna mia! Oh my God! I began to be taken sick after some time on the job.’
‘When did you first notice the effects?’
‘My wife said to me in bed, please dear, turn off the night light.’
‘I replied, ‘We don’t have a night light’.’
‘What did you do about it?’
‘I decided to seek compensation for this ailment. Upon my arrival at the workers’ compensation department, I was interviewed by an assessor. He said: ‘I see you work with radio-active materials and wish to claim compensation.’
‘Indeed, I feel really sick.’
‘What do your employers have to say about their responsibility?’
‘They say, ‘How do you know? What you can’t see, can’t hurt you.’
‘It’s easy to say that.’
’That’s what my colleague was led to believe. He died of radiation poisoning a few months back’
‘Alright then, is your employer taking measures now to protect you from radiation poisoning?
‘Yes, they give me a lead suit to wear on the job.’
‘ And what about the cabin in which you drive?’
‘That’s lead lined, all lead lined.’
‘What about the waste itself? Where is that kept?’
‘The stuff is held in a lead container, all lead.’
‘Let me see if I get this straight. You wear a lead suit, sit in a lead-lined cabin and the radio-active waste is kept in a lead container.’
‘That’s right. All lead.’
‘Then I can’t see how you could claim against him for radiation poisoning.’
‘I’m not. I’m claiming for lead poisoning.’
‘Truck driving is really is dangerous, Paolo. Did you ever have any accidents?’
‘Once I crashed the tanker I was driving. I spilled its load onto the motorway. The police stopped all oncoming vehicles and warned the drivers to stick to the inside lane.’
What were you carrying?
‘A consignment of glue.’
‘Some people have the wrong idea of truck drivers. Have you had any trouble on account of this?’
‘You come across all kinds of people out on the road. Once I was sitting down in a small roadside cafe, at a table in a corner reserved with a grimy Campari sign. I was minding my own business, looking forward to a plate of spaghetti and a beer. As I was about to eat, three of the nastiest, meanest looking hoons come roaring in to the parking lot. They entered the café boisterously, taking over the tiny place. Two of them squeezed next to a woman wearing a leather jacket, eating a hamburger and drinking a milkshake. One hoon said to her rudely, ‘Make room, you silly cow!’
The capitan noticed little old me in the corner sitting opposite an old man and came over to mark the territory. Capish’?
‘I understand. He sounds like Christopher Moltisanti – someone who’ll go out of his way to make trouble. What happened next?’
He towered over the old man and said, ‘Sfigato, I’m giving you fair warning, loser. Anything you do to that chicken, I’m going to do to you.’
So the old man put down his knife and fork, picked up that chicken and kissed it.
He then turned his attention to me, looking at the seat next to me and asking ‘Is anyone sitting there?’
‘It doesn’t look like it, does it,’ I said laughing ’
What are ya laughin’ at? Something funny?’
‘Then don’t laugh.’
What’s the big idea?’
‘There is no idea.’
‘Sitting down, this disgraziato started giving me a hard time – he put his fingers in my pasta and slurped it into his faccia brutta, his ugly puss,’ said Paolo, screwing up his own face and pointing to it. This stupido had a face like this.
‘Faccia questa cosi!’
The waitress came over crying ‘Leave him al—
‘Leave him alone’. She asked ‘What the, what the—
‘What the hell are you doing? Ma che cozz’u fai?!’
‘Fatti gatti due!’he shouted, ‘mind your own f—ing business! Staizii! – be quiet!
‘Then this good for nothing sc—
Then this good for nothing scumbag spat in my meal and asked ‘Are you hungry”
‘He ordered Mangi! Eat!’
‘Just like the old man, I didn’t let myself be provoked’, Paolo continued. I wanted to shout ‘Ffangul’!- go f— yourself !’ but held my tongue. I remembered what my papa told me once: ‘Never pick a fight with an ugly person, they’ve got nothing to lose.’ Soon this pazzo-idiot- got frustrated by my lack of response and dumped my spaghetti plate right on my head. I was covered with noodles and sauce was dripping down my face. I told this bad dude, this sfacimm’ I didn’t want any trouble and cleaned away the mess. The buttagot-idiot- wasn’t done trailing his leather coat– he told me I’m a ‘lily-livered cissy’ and dumped my beer right in my lap. I thought ‘watch out, you’re gonna get hurt!
‘uarda la ciunca! And then—‘
‘I jumped to my feet. The room was silent. The bikers thought they were finally going to see some action — but I just sauntered over to the cash register, settled the check and strode out the door.
‘What happened after that?’
‘What happened after that was recounted to me later by the waitress:
‘ A minute or two passed and the head hoon decided to have the last word, “That guy sure isn’t much of a man!” About ten seconds of silence followed. The silence was shattered by the sound of mangled metal and the words of the waitress… “And he sure isn’t much of a driver either. He just backed his 18-wheeler over three motorcycles.’
‘Bada bing!’, I cried, banging my hand on the table. ‘Bam! Do you have any more stories for us? Tell us all your deeds so glowing.’
‘Un altra volta.’
‘Un ada oda’, I translated, ‘another time’.