May 2005

Arts & Letters

The Price of Noodles

By Michelle Griffin

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The waiters at Lentil As Anything, a homely 28-seat vegetarian joint on Blessington Street, St Kilda, never tell you how much to pay for your meal. There are no prices on the wall. You pay what you feel the meal was worth. Twenty dollars for a Moroccan hotpot? Five dollars for pumpkin curry, chai and some apple cake? Just slip it in the moneybox and leave. Only occasionally will anyone say anything. Steve, a cockney DJ who has been waiting tables at Lentils since March, baulks when a dreadlocked bloke gives him $3 for a tofu burger with organic salad.

“Mate, that is not nearly enough to pay for the food on that plate.”

“I’m basing my prices on McDonald’s.”

“Eat at McDonald’s then!”

“I can’t. I’m a vegan.”

When Shanaka Fernando launched his no-prices-policy nobody in Melbourne’s competitive cafe circuit thought his hippy trip would survive. Four years on, a second Lentil As Anything has opened on Sydney Road, Brunswick, and more branches are planned in the student-belt suburbs of Northcote, Fitzroy and Footscray. The son of a Sri Lankan holiday resort manager – “the kind who listens to Bing Crosby and reads Dickens” – Fernando is rumoured to be a millionaire who gives away his fortune to sleep in a tent on the nearby Elwood foreshore. He was sent to Australia to study law but instead spent his twenties travelling the world with his Australian girlfriend, dabbling in Buddhism, playing music and writing stories.

Fernando has no food background but a firm belief in giving people the freedom to pay according to the dictates of their conscience. And he seems to have tapped into some kind of free-market restaurant economics, whereby middle-class guilt can be leveraged to balance the costs of the two-dollar chisellers. He jokes that he has gone from “nothing to extreme poverty”. His $2 million annual turnover merely covers expenses: $4,000 a week for food, plus rent, utilities and insurance. The staff are volunteers who collect cash in hand once – or if – the restaurant covers its other costs. “At any one time,” says Fernando, “we are $10,000 behind in our bills.”

Computer programmer Brendan arrives with Evelyn at 5.30 on a Saturday evening. “We’re happily married,” he explains, “but not to each other.” They wanted to check the place out “because vegan guys are always cool”. They are not after a meal. But they can’t get a cup of tea, they’re told, because people won’t pay for it. Evelyn is bemused. “How about we pay you for it then?” They stay, ordering a sample platter and a couple of herbal teas. Brendan still thinks it’s cool but it reminds him of the philosophy behind open-source software, which he admires less. They go Dutch: two fivers and some spare change, $12.45.

The four on the front table – angular Hieng, cornrow-swinging Tomika, curvy Jody and pale boy Tom with the strawberry hair and trucker hat – are glowing after a positivity workshop at their youth group. They neck BYO beers and pay $10 for a shared plate of Udon noodles. Across the aisle sit six others, with baby faces and studded biker jackets. They met in a city alleyway, says Blake, who comes here regularly. If he’s broke he pays $5; when he’s cashed up he pays $10. Tonight they scrabble together $23 for two curries, some noodles and a Japanese pancake.

Sera, who’s pregnant, perches on a stool up the back, sipping soy milk after finishing her burger. Her partner is at home watching football. She is 22, with the face of a Leonardo Madonna and the tattoo of an empty picture frame on her right arm. It’s been only a month since she was hospitalised for manic depression, and she likes to get out of the house when she feels restless. Her fingers are constantly busy, threading beads into bracelets to sell at the markets. Her baby’s a girl, and she’s going to call her Aria: “Our little song.”

Amy, a uni student, is late for dinner and in tears. Wandering through St Kilda, she collided with a couple of drunks who were out looking for prostitutes, and then she ran the rest of the way. She debriefs in a rush, shaking the tension from her hands and dabbing at her eyes. Her friends cannot decide between devilled potatoes and malai kofta. They change their minds three times.

“As a waiter myself, I’m so sorry for the craziness,” shouts Amy’s friend Loretta

“Oh I love it,” replies head waiter Timi Van. “My natural element is craziness.”

Most of the staff move on after six to nine months. But Timi Van, a rock singer, has been here three days a week since the beginning. He doesn’t want to know how much people pay. “That’s between them and the box. I don’t get involved.” Loretta drops $47 into the box for four meals.

Blue light strobes from the courtyard, where some backpackers are taking photos of each other. Audrey, from Montreal, is celebrating her 31st birthday with her boyfriend Thomas and five new friends, including Chris, a mouthy English chef who comes here because he can smoke out the back. “Normally I wouldn’t shit in a vegetarian restaurant,” says Chris, “but the food’s very good here.” He has the place figured out. “People won’t ask for change, so they save 20 cents. They don’t come here for a particular meal, so they don’t have a run on anything. You can give away the slow meals to the ones who don’t pay, so it’s going out the door instead of in the bin.”

By 10.15 the last customers are leaving. A hundred meals – probably enough – have been served tonight. Fernando snorts in disbelief at reports that most people say they pay $12 to $15, although he finds people do pay more if they hand the money to staff. “But I prefer it in the box – it is too confrontational to accept money.” He has lived in his tent on the foreshore since leaving the house on the edge of the Dandenongs he shared with his girlfriend and baby daughter. Now, he says, they are arguing because he can’t provide financially. “It takes a lot of sacrifices to live like this … but I feel overwhelmingly we have succeeded in promoting thought. If I am brave enough to follow my heart, that is the measure of my success.”

In the courtyard, a drunken scream is followed by laughter. A fat possum has climbed down from the roof and is eyeing the leftovers. As Fernando and his staff sweep up, Audrey stops at the box with a wad of bills: three twenties, a ten and a fresh green $100 note. She doesn’t ask for change.

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