From Iraq War to the pandemic, one chef’s philanthropic journey

By Indira Laisram
Daman and Diya

The coronavirus pandemic has meant different things to different chefs. While some are reinventing themselves, some others are on a philanthropic journey. Take Daman Shrivastav, who, since March has been cooking for the homeless and international students badly hit by the pandemic.

Being a seasoned chef and a teacher would seem like a responsibility if you look at chef Shrivastav’s commitment to food and service. By March, when the novel coronavirus began to rear its ugly head in Victoria, he started cooking three days a week taking food to the homeless and those whose lives have suddenly been upended.

“That has increased now. I am serving about 450-500 meals weekly,” says Shrivastav.

Shrivastav cooks from his home in South Morang and spends part of his salary (he works full time as a patisserie teacher at  Box Hill Institute) on raw materials and containers and gets in touch with a not for profit organisation that delivers the food on his behalf.

He has direct contacts with international students at Monash University, RMIT and La Trobe, and there are others who know of his work through word of mouth. “Some have become like my permanent clients,” he says with a laugh, but on a serious note, adds, “Things are getting worse especially for them, they don’t have jobs or food, some are new and are in pretty bad shape.”

Shrivastav has been cooking for the homeless in Melbourne for the past ten years. In this pandemic though, “The demand is so much that I have to tell people I can’t do five days. That’s my limitation,” he says.

Daman and Diya

He realises he can do more if he has a food truck or a commercial kitchen with fridges and storage facilities and ensuring food safety guidelines. With his professional background, he also has a community of chefs who are willing volunteers.

Alive with adrenaline, he recently started a GoFundMe campaign towards realising this goal.

Shrivastav, who hails from Delhi, has studied in the best institutes such as City of Westminster College in London where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was his junior. He has also worked in the best places around the world such as the Oberoi and Maurya Sheraton in Delhi, The Dorchestor and The Savoy in London, the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad, to name a few. It set in motion an extraordinary career, but he chose to settle down as a teacher in Melbourne to “impart his knowledge and experience to others”.

However, the narrative tied to his charity work began at the kitchen of the renowned Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad when the Iraq War broke out. As an executive chef there, Shrivastav recalls cooking with gas mask on, serving injured journalists and other patrons. When his shift ended, he would take food to the many Iraqis displaced from their homes. On the aside, he doesn’t understand what the fuss about wearing mask on is during this time.

The devastation of the war that he saw first-hand did more for his career and changed the nature of his ambition as a chef.

Refusing to join the Indian government’s rescue team, Shrivastav stayed on in Baghdad to help the locals but later had to flee to Amman due to the worsening situation. By some stroke of luck, he ended up with a fruit-picking job which, unbeknown to him, was owned by relatives of King Hussein. Upon hearing his story, the family offered him a lucrative prospect of opening up a French restaurant, French cuisines being his forte but not without the rigorous test of putting up a six-course meal for some of the top chefs of Amman.

Daman and Diya

La Coquette was set up in 1992, which Shrivastav ran successfully for nearly two years before deciding to come to Australia with his wife who he met there and his son. Among the memories that stand out is receiving a Longines watch from King Hussein with his signature and crown on the dial.

But also worthy of mention is the fact that when he was in Amman, his Iraqi friends, who had also fled to Amman while mapping their path from before to after, came to him seeking help. That’s when Shrivastav found that inner, spiritual kind of fulfilment again in cooking.

However, with his new family, he began to think about the larger future such as his son’s education and the insecurity of living in a country without any citizenship.

Already fascinated by Australia through the Tasmanian products he was working with in Amman, it was not a tough decision to make. So, in 1995, the Shrivastavs migrated to Melbourne.

The Australian journey began well. He worked with Gary Mehigan at Novotel on Collins and even opened his own restaurant Bayleaves on Hoddle. He tasted the highs. But somewhere between his culinary pursuits and semblance for normality, it threw his family life out of gear. He separated from his wife and found himself sleeping on a park bench two nights in a row, washing up at a public toilet and turning up the next day to teach his students at Box Hill Institute, where he works full time now. It would give him a small insight into homelessness in this country.

Daman and Diya

That’s when Shrivastav viewed the world through his own lenses and started cooking ten years ago for the homeless. When the pandemic struck, he included international students.

He also did something for school children roping in his impressive eight-year old Diya, his daughter through his second marriage.

Like most parents, Shrivastav was working from home and also looking after Diya who usually finishes her home schooling early. He conceptualised a cooking show called DDs, short for Daman and Diya Show or a dad daughter show, as he also calls it. Together, the father-daughter duo put up some cooking show videos. The videos became so popular that Diya’s school principal incorporated it as a Friday program. For the past 2-3 months, 200 students of Kew Primary School have been benefiting from the shows.

Shrivastav believes the shows not only engages children with food but also teaches them life skills from using calculations in recipes to challenging their sensory perceptions to developing leadership skills to building confidence and increasing creativity.

For Shrivastav, the moral purpose of cooking is also something he learnt from Mother Teresa. He recalls the good fortune of meeting her in Amman and accompanying her to help clean up a church. That day he realised that while becoming a chef is about achieving mastery, the driving force in his life would be charity work.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas

Connect with Indira Laisram on Twitter

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