by Stefan Abeysekera

Melbourne has many iconic landmarks but the one that appeals to me most and the one I keep going back to is the vegetarian restaurant Lentil As Anything at Abbotsford Convent.

Working on a shoestring budget Lentil is at first glance a sprawling, unpretentious drop-in eatery with a welcoming laissez-faire atmosphere. People of all ages and backgrounds wander in and out with casual dress or bohemian/hip colour and you wonder if you’ve slipped through a worm hole back to the sixties. But this isn’t a lotus eating do little Arcadia. Take a seat and you could soon be conversing with an oncologist from Poland on one side, a Korean ceramic artist on the other and an American social worker in front of you. You are very unlikely to meet such a polyglot, diversified and friendly group of customers or staff anywhere in Australia. It’s a throbbing pool of amorphous yet highly innovative and compassionate individuals.

The egalitarianism of the place is astonishing. You might be served tea by a volunteering Ph.D. or a student doing work placement. The philosophy of Lentil is similar to the theme first enunciated by Louis Blanc – “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. This ethos has been brought to life against all odds by Lentils founder Shanaka Fernando. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served throughout the year and those who cannot donate money are never refused Lentils delicious food. There is also live music every evening, everything from Jazz to Japanese folk music.

Lentil As Anything is located close to the heart of the city. And it’s in danger of disappearing. The Abbotsford Convent administrators want to scrap Lentil and lease the area out to the highest bidder. Lentil is totally unique but the administrators seem to want replace it with something unoriginal that could be replicated elsewhere.

There is a combination of factors that have made Lentil so successful. The venue itself is magically located in the south-east corner of the beautiful French ecclesiastical style Convent. Cloistered between old world charm and the perennially refreshing Convent Gardens it’s a nexus that organically enhances the regenerative ambience of the restaurant.

This is a simplification but for the sake of clarity staff and clientele can be divided into three categories. 1) Professionals 2) Those going through transitional phases in personal and/or career paths 3) Future innovators of a global society. It’s the Left Bank meets Woodstock meets Apple Inc. There’s something else that’s special. The idealism of workers and volunteers are paradigms of a dynamic that can save our planet. Today a female manager said to me “Lentil helped me regain the life I lost through family violence and mental illness”.

Lentil is surrounded by yoga and healing studios, artist’s ateliers and craft workshops. As well as being a nurturing centre Lentil is part of a healing process taking place on the very location where unwanted young females were once hidden away from genteel society. Girls who had been rejected by their families or had been sexually abused or both were sent to the Convent where they were exposed to a brutal regime under harsh institutional authority.
A recent event that may shed light on current Convent administration philosophy is their cursory handling of a request made by survivors of those harsh orphanage years. These women had asked for a modest space in the Convent where they could meet and share their experiences and heal their childhood traumas. The administration said they could – for a price. The chill hand of commercialism dashed their hopes of transcending their poignant shared history. Veiling the past entails the shrouding of the collective memory of unwanted children who lived here as unpaid labour for the Convent.

Lentil shelters and trains people who are down on their luck and find it hard to be accepted elsewhere. To deny them this opportunity is to deny all manner of social progress made in the last half century and keep our gaze averted from issues such as burgeoning drug abuse and the fragmentation brought about by family disintegration.

To overlook this dynamism would be a grievous setback to Melbourne’s participation in a global awakening and a betrayal of its youth. If this sounds like hyperbole come down to the Convent and have a look for yourself.

This space can be used by a small number of people for the financial gain of a few or it can continue to be maintained by a large number of volunteers and workers to serve a huge number of customers and trainees.

In theory the Convent and it’s spaces are owned by the general public. In practice you can support Lentil As Anything and add your voice to thousands of others who continue to advocate kindness and empathy.

Lentils Abbotsford is a once and future centre for the seeding and flowering of the best in our nature. If it disappears Melbourne will lose a chamber of its heart and a major fragment of its soul.