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For many chefs, their passion for the culinary arts goes back to their childhood, watching their mothers cook in the kitchen and provide for the family. Melbourne chef Daman Shrivastav, however, has a slightly different story.
“I wasn’t inclined to cooking at all as a child. It was only in year 12 when I saw how stylish Amitabh Bachchan looked in Amar Akbar Anthony that I even considered it as a career,” he laughed.
His father wanted him to become an engineer or a doctor, but Daman’s mind was made up by then, and he got his start at Imperial Hotel in his hometown of New Delhi.
“At the time, I had this attitude about not wanting to become a bawarchi (cook) and I hated my first few days as a kitchen hand, cleaning dishes and cutting vegetables,” he told Indian Link.
Three decades later, Daman is a celebrated restauranteur and chef. Finding the perfect balance between his love for food and his desire to serve the community, he has been distributing free meals to the homeless in Melbourne for the last ten years.
With the pandemic and COVID lockdowns, he expanded his reach, and has been preparing over 1,000 meals a week to help international students who have also struggled during the pandemic.
The initiative, DD’s Kitchen, has a simple yet wholesome tagline: food is a basic human right.
“During the pandemic, I saw the plight of international students who lost their income. They struggled to pay their rent or buy even one meal a day,” Daman explained.
“There’s a misconception that these students come from rich families and can afford to live here, but in reality, their families take on huge financial hardships to send them to Australia. In these difficult times, if everyone stays home, who will look after them?”
Joined by his 9-year-old daughter Diya, he puts his years of experience at top kitchens like Oberoi, Sheraton, and ITC into delicious, nutritious food.
“We focus on food that is balanced, healthy, and easy to consume. Our menu includes pastas, easy bakes, casseroles, and a good mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals,” he elaborates. “At the end of the day, whether someone is a king or prime minister or homeless, we all deserve nourishing food.”
At one point in his career, Daman did in fact cook for a king, Hussein bin Talal of Jordan, but it’s just one laurel in his long culinary journey.
In the early 90’s, he worked in a luxury hotel in Baghdad during the first Gulf War, wearing gas masks to serve customers when told of a possible chemical attack. After the war, he had to start all over again, travelling across the Middle East to finally migrate to Melbourne in 1994.
For Daman, the passion for both social work and the culinary arts runs deep.
“I might not have appreciated it before, but when I started working professionally in kitchens overseas, I really understood and fell in love with the science of food,” he shared with Indian Link.
“There is real satisfaction in making other people happy. It’s taught me that passion can be built over time, and in the last 14 years as a hospitality lecturer, it’s something that I try to inculcate in my students.”
It’s certainly ingrained in Diya, his partner-in-crime at DD’s Kitchen and co-host of their online cooking show. Daman couldn’t be prouder.
“Diya shows a real passion for cooking. Through this endeavour, she’s picked up some important skills like innovation, creativity, organisation, balancing flavours. She’s learnt to share and give back to the community. That’s important to me as a parent,” he grinned.
After years of supporting the needy from his own pocket, DD’s Kitchen began a fundraiser last year to purchase a food truck and continue their social enterprise. When funds fell short, the family sold their car to purchase a van to deliver their meals.
Now, DD’s Kitchen has between 30 to 40 volunteers who assist the father-daughter duo while the Yarra City Council has generously provided a house to cook in. Every Sunday, DD’s Kitchen provides a buffet for the community of Collingwood, providing for the Aboriginal residents.
But Daman has even bigger plans in store.
“The next step is to educate so that people can provide for themselves. At the moment, we are doing this with video classes but I’m looking for space and infrastructure to be able to provide short courses on simple cooking skills,” he shared.
“The idea is to attract them with the meals, assess them, and then train them to provide for themselves. It’s important to share the knowledge. You know what they say – give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day but teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Feedback from the community has been nothing short of heart-warming.
“People don’t need to say much, I get lots of hugs. That’s enough for me,” he smiled.
To support the DD’s Kitchen fundraiser, click here.
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