Culinary Harbour Cities Everybody Eats

Kitchen volunteer Virginia Connell slices off the bad parts of rescued pumpkins
Kitchen volunteer Virginia Connell slices off the bad parts of rescued pumpkins | © Lottie Hedley

There’s no such thing as a free lunch or so the saying goes. But, at Everybody Eats there is such as thing as a free dinner, or a $2 dinner or frankly whatever you can pay dinner. The pay-as-you-feel model employed by the restaurant is new to Auckland, but over the course of the past year has stamped its mark on the food scene.

For the past year Everybody Eats has been hosted as a pop-up on Monday nights at K-Road institution Gemmayze Street where a volunteer team of chefs and kitchen hands take rescued food and transform it into a hearty, nutritious restaurant meal which diners can pay as much or as little for by placing a koha (donation) in the inconspicuous donation tin. More recently the Everybody Eats experience has been taken out to Avondale for its first permanent space and where it takes over Woodworks cafe during a Wednesday and Thursday evening and hopes to extend to service five nights a week.
 
Everybody Eats founder 32-year-old Nick Loosley is a restauranteur with a decade in the industry. His curiosity with regards to food and where it comes from, its affect on our bodies and the environment lead him to a Masters in Economics for Transition at Schumacher College in the UK in 2014.
 
For Nick one of the defining experiences at the College was how each day the students assisted the kitchen staff at the university in growing, harvesting and preparing lunch and dinner followed by everyone sitting down together to share those meals communally. “So my question for my thesis studies became ‘what happens if we stop to cook and share food like we used to?’” As part of his research Nick volunteered at 12 different organisations where people were cooking and sharing food communally, including The Real Junk Food Project and Food Cycle where rescued food was a part of their missions.
 
Returning home to New Zealand Nick decided to use his restaurant background to offer something a little different with Everybody Eats. Recognising that there are only a small proportion of people who get to have that restaurant experience he decided that he wanted to offer a really dignified and special dining occasion to people who wouldn't otherwise get it. Everybody Eats was born as a table service, plated restaurant where roughly 95% of the food being served is rescued. 
 
At Everybody Eats the kitchen can be serving anywhere from 100 to 300 meals in an evening. Cooking for large numbers is no concern for tonight’s chef Tony Njenga as he’s spent the past 18 years cooking at all sorts of establishments around NZ, from boutique lodges to large stadiums. The biggest challenge Tony says not knowing what you’re cooking until you turn up to the kitchen and look through the rescued food.
 

  • Everybody Eats founder Nick Loosley rescuing food from New World, Eastridge © Lottie Hedley
    Everybody Eats founder Nick Loosley rescuing food from New World, Eastridge
  • Everybody Eats founder Nick Loosley rescuing food from Kiwi Harvest © Lottie Hedley
    Everybody Eats founder Nick Loosley rescuing food from Kiwi Harvest
  • Everybody Eats founder Nick Loosley rescuing food from Daily Bread bakery in Auckland © Lottie Hedley
    Everybody Eats founder Nick Loosley rescuing food from Daily Bread bakery in Auckland
  • Chef Tony Nienga takes stock of the day’s rescued food and considers the evening menu © Lottie Hedley
    Chef Tony Nienga takes stock of the day’s rescued food and considers the evening menu
  • Kitchen volunteer Virginia Connell slices off the bad parts of rescued pumpkins © Lottie Hedley
    Kitchen volunteer Virginia Connell slices off the bad parts of rescued pumpkins
  • Amanda Butland prepares the restaurant for the evening service © Lottie Hedley
    Amanda Butland prepares the restaurant for the evening service
  • Chef Tony Nienga and the team prepare the evening’s three course meal © Lottie Hedley
    Chef Tony Nienga and the team prepare the evening’s three course meal
  • Spiced cauliflower soup is the first course for the evening © Lottie Hedley
    Spiced cauliflower soup is the first course for the evening
  • The team of volunteers at Everybody Eats on the Wednesday night the writer visits in October 2018 © Lottie Hedley
    The team of volunteers at Everybody Eats on the Wednesday night the writer visits in October 2018
  • Everybody Eats Founder Nick Loosley © Lottie Hedley
    Everybody Eats Founder Nick Loosley
Today’s rescued food fills the trunks of two cars. If the Everybody Eats team wasn’t picking it up the cases of ugly looking, bruised or discoloured cabbage, cauliflower, bananas, apples, mushrooms, carrots, broccoli and capsicum would have been headed straight to the pig bins or landfill.
 
Nick says that they aim to prepare nourishing accessible restaurant food. Each dinner is a set menu with three courses. The evening I am in Avondale Tony decides on a menu of spiced cauliflower soup, spicy stir fried beef and vegetables and an apple crumble for dessert. With the meat and vegetables rescued from Eastridge New World and Kiwi Harvest and the bread from Daily Bread in Point Chevalier there are only a few basic items like rice and soy sauce which Nick has to buy from the supermarket.
 
Everybody Eats relies on a team of volunteers - those out back who prep and cook the food and who attend to the mountain of dishes during service and those out front who greet and host and wait on the diners.
 
The support of Auckland’s hospitality industry has been overwhelming since Everybody Eats got started with several notable chefs bringing their kitchen crews to volunteer. There are also the regular volunteers like mum of five Virginia Connell. Virginia has been a regular weekly volunteer in the kitchen at Everybody Eats during the course of the past year and given all her work and home commitments I’m keen to know what motivates her to spend eight hours on a Wednesday out back slicing and dicing in preparation for the evening’s service.
 
“Here in Avondale we get a lot of single income and food poverty families that can’t afford to take their families out to a really nice restaurant,” she says. “Here you get a three course meal and really great fellowship with community which is what I love the most about it. There is real dignity in that, it's not just about feeding the bellies, it is also feeding the soul.”
 
Amanda Butland is the Avondale volunteer restaurant manager. In her briefing to the volunteers at the start of the evening she pairs up new volunteers with experienced hands so that they can learn the ropes. Amanda says that what Everybody Eats has created is a safe dining zone. She says, “in here we have a really diverse range of people from those struggling to put food on the table to others with their eyes open to some of the problems we face, everyone is welcome.” The diners at Everybody Eats are a mixture of the city’s vulnerable population (including homeless and the elderly) as well as young hipsters, families and and professionals. 

Oftentimes the front of house try and sit people together who don't know each other. “They look a bit shy at first but they end up having a great conversation over dinner,” Amanda says. “It’s the best way to bring people together so it's not just about food and waste but it is also about community and spreading the spirit of care and love and I think that works, I really do.”
 
Everybody Eats is something Nick is keen to take to other cities in New Zealand as long as they can stay true to their core values of using as much rescued food as possible, being volunteer driven and pay-as-you-feel. In addition and importantly he says Everybody Eats will always be as inclusive as possible.
 
The main thing Nick would like everybody to take away from Everybody Eats other than a full belly is the social element of the experience- engaging with food and communing with other people who you mightn’t otherwise have that opportunity to spend time with. “We live in a really fragmented society and it’s a shame, but it is the reality,” he says. “I don’t believe that there are enough situations for people of different ages, cultures, socio economic backgrounds to come together and talk and food is the most powerful thing I know that will gather together different people. I would really hope that someone could come in and build trust with another person, whether they are a different sex, culture, rich or poor.”
 
The secondary take away for Nick is for people to think about the food waste problem and how they’ve been able to simply take food that is ugly and turn that into something beautiful and delicious so that people realise that this food isn't rubbish. “If people are sitting there and eating a meal that is 90 or 95% made from food that would literally have gone into a bin and can visualise that and be enjoying their meal it might make them think twice about their purchasing decisions and what they are throwing away.”
 
 
Thanks to Everybody Eats founder Nick Loosley, weekly kitchen volunteer Virginia Connell, Everybody Eats chef Tony Njenga and volunteer restaurant manager Amanda Butland who I spoke to at Everybody Eats in Avondale on a Wednesday service for this story.