More Than Food
30 November 2016 at 10:58 am
Food is known for bringing people together, but a social enterprise food tour company is going one step further, using international cuisine to build cross-cultural connections.
Taste Cultural Food Tours guides people through the often unexplored suburbs of Sydney, offering an experience of unique foods and cultures.
The social enterprise began in 2010, launched with the support of the Benevolent Society, and, 18 months ago, it became an independent entity.
Lesley Unsworth, who came across from the Benevolent Society, is the founder of the new Taste Cultural Food Tours. She says the mission to build cross-cultural understanding and social cohesion remains the same.
“We established to create connections across cultures, so it’s really an anti-racism program but we don’t use that kind of language,” Unsworth said.
“It’s very much about trying to create positive cross-cultural experiences using food tours as the medium for that.
“We’re working in the diverse suburbs of Sydney, and the locations that we chose are often places that get a bad rap through the media, places like Lakemba, Fairfield, Liverpool, and we support small, family-owned businesses, independently run businesses.”
Unsworth says the experience is about more than eating great food.
“Anybody can go and eat and hang on to all their prejudices… without that ever having any kind of impact other than on their tastebuds and tummies,” she said.
“Really it’s the relational stuff. It’s a local person telling the stories of the local neighbourhood, often the businesses that we work with are fairly involved and will come and have a chat with the customers, the person who’s running the tour.
“While there’s a structure to the tour and it’s a proper food tour that would work just on that level… it’s full of the stories of the local neighbourhoods, some of the history, some of the relationships, who’s living in the neighbourhood. And often it’s about their relationship with that area and arrival in that area and their welcome into that community.”
Despite the strong mission, she says the focus is on creating an enjoyable experience.
“There’s nothing about it that’s browbeating, we don’t go on about politics or the state of the world or anything like that, it’s just very much about who we are, who they are,” she said.
“[We] work hard to make the tours themselves a welcoming place. Our customers are meeting each other too so it’s a very interactive in that regard, it’s not like a lot of commercial tours where you’re just dragged around places at top speed, given the standard script, there’s airspace in there to have the conversations.
“There’s no doubt we work hard to get the right food and get high-quality food because we need it to stack up against commercial enterprises, we need it to have the same level of quality as a commercial food tour would have.”
The social impact often occurs after people finish the tour, when they share their experience with their family and friends.
“Our hope is they’ll repeat visit and take their friends back to those places. In the previous project when we’ve been able to measure that that has been the case that people do return or make recommendations to their friends and it starts a bit of a chain reaction,” Unsworth said.
“We certainly always get the feedback from our customers about their views of a place change. Some of the things people say to us are ‘I didn’t expect that in this neighbourhood’, ‘I’ve only… read in the paper about this place and it actually is very, very different’ and words like ‘friendly’ and ‘welcoming’.”
She says while many people who chose to take a Taste tour are already very open to other cultures, the run-on effects can influence those who aren’t.
“I think one of the things we’re doing is providing [people] with some tools in their life to address the racism that occurs around them or the prejudice that occurs around them,” she said.
“So if they’re listening to people being Islamophobic they can talk about a really beautiful experience that they’ve had and they can take their friends, feeling quite safe, into neighbourhoods that people wrongly feel a bit fearful about.”
Along with tours, Taste offers training and development opportunities, and employs people from migrant and refugee backgrounds.
“Tour guiding is much more complex work than most people would ever realise so in terms of providing a real entry into the workforce in Australia we’ve had enormous successes in that regard,” Unsworth said.
“We’ve recently recruited four people who have started working and training with us and they’re people from refugee and migrant backgrounds.”
She says Taste, both under the Benevolent Society and in its own right, has had success in helping people go on to find meaningful work.
“We’ve got one gentleman who is Lebanese and he had done film school and acting school he had a successful career in the arts in Lebanon and married an Australian-Lebanese woman and came over here and for seven years was stacking shelves in Woolworths and parenting his son,” she said.
“He started working with us and it really triggered some things in him about his performance skills and he loved guiding, he was a great guide and then got involved in filmmaking again.”
Taste is a not-for-profit organisation, and will soon be applying for charity status, but Unsworth says they “identify very clearly” as a social enterprise.
“At the moment we’re mostly surviving on trading income and some small grants, and an awful lot of volunteerism,” she said.
“We’re involved in a lot of social enterprise networks, we identify very clearly as a social enterprise business.
“We developed a Chinatown tour which is for tourists, and we’ve partnered with Intrepid Urban Adventures as one of their social enterprise partners to offer that tour.”
However, Unsworth says “keeping the money coming in” is a constant challenge, and the social enterprise hopes a strong December income will help over the leaner months.
She encouraged organisations and businesses looking for a last-minute Christmas party to consider booking an event with a difference.