Sebastian Simon: A successful chef giving back to the community
Fair to say that most chefs don't have the best reputation when it comes to being patient people. In fact, most have a Gordon-Ramsey-style approach to interacting with staff and customers: think barked orders, tossed aprons, and a very colourful dialogue of profanities.
It's hard to imagine the gently spoken Sebastian Simon as one of these red-faced chefs, but he insists that until several years ago, that's exactly what he was. Growing up in India's Bangalore, Sebastian was taught the rough and tumble ways of the kitchen by his mentors, adopting the same style himself when in the kitchen.
"I came from a very abusive cheffing industry growing up. The chefs only knew the one way of communicating, which was essentially - you better do it my way, or else I'm going to kick you," he says.
"Earlier on in my life I became a sous chef and decided that I too could only communicate in that way. I would also abuse my wait staff, thinking it was the only way to get their attention."
But it wasn't long before he realised that this style of management and teaching was not for him. Simon realised that he wanted to support the new chefs entering the industry, not deter them. And so, over the years, Sebastian has worked tirelessly to make the cheffing industry a safe, welcoming, and happy place for his students and his staff.
"One of the things that changed me drastically, however, was turning my business around from a place of hate, to a place of cooking with love. That's why I became a teacher, to teach cooking with love."
This path eventually led him to last year hosting three Australian celebrity chefs in his hometown of Bangalore for the International Food Festival.
"In 2016 I was lucky enough to be involved in the World On A Plate food festival which allowed me to work with the three judges of Australian MasterChef (Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston) in Bangalore, India, where I grew up," says Sebastian.
"It was great to be able to return to the city I lived in, and it was a great festival. When it was all over and I was on the plane, I had this incredible feeling of like - wow. That's a lot of money I've made, a lot of fame, a lot of people who now know me as a chef. I'm going to come back and get some real mileage out of this, and be set for life!"
With his newfound fame, Sebastian decided that he wanted to open his own restaurant, and continue to leverage his connection, through word of mouth, with three of Australia's best-known faces in the hospitality industry . But, once he had embarked on this new journey, just like his realisation many years ago when contemplating what kind of chef he wanted to be, Sebastian had another moment of life-changing reflection.
"After a few months back in Melbourne, I had this thought. I was like, Sebastian, what is wrong with you? You have become a vain, proud, and a ridiculously arrogant person. That's when it hit me: I've been blessed with this really incredible gift of cooking. And all my life I've been doing it for myself - now it's time to give back."
By the time the end of last year rolled around, Sebastian had come up with an idea: he was going to bring the gift of food to a stranger each and every day of 2017. And so, his Random Acts Of Kindness mission was born.
"By the 27th of November in 2016 I had made my decision," says Sebastian, "I was going to cook for someone else every single day of 2017. I was going to cook it for them myself, not pre-prepared, not reheated but cooked right in front of them. And the main point was this: whatever I do, it's not about getting something back in return. It must be a one way thing, an act of kindness from me to someone else."
It was a mighty challenge to set himself. The father of a young son, teacher, chef, and often on the road travelling; Sebastian was now also going to attempt to find, cook for, and eat with a new person every single day.
January was a blur of cooking every single day, but by the time February came around, Sebastian knew he needed to tweak the system. During a trip to Japan, he had one of his students step in to prepare the meals for his surprise guests, and during busy times, his student would actually make three or four meals in one day so he could take the next few days off.
Sebastian also challenged himself to step out of his comfort zone, and started cooking for people who were complete strangers.
"I began first doing this with people I knew because I was concerned I might get a kick up my backside if I surprised someone Ididn't know at their house!" laughs Sebastian.
"But then people I knew from Facebook, friends of friends, they began to nominate people they felt deserved a meal."
This is where the magic really began to happen.
Slowly but surely, people from his online following and local community caught wind of the Random Acts of Kindness mission, and began to suggest those who they felt deserved a bit of Sebastian Simon food therapy.
From ex-colleagues to local businesses, Sebastian has worked his way around Melbourne, meeting exceptional people who every day inspire him to keep going. Some stories stand out more than others.
"One family I visited really touched my heart," says Sebastian.
"They were a young family I know from my local community. The father is suffering from stage three brain cancer. He is from Burma, and she's Australian, and they have two beautiful children. Until this point, it was awkward to know what to say, more than the customary hello, how are you going. So I felt that there was more I could do. I surprised them by going to their house and cooked them dinner - we didn't even discuss his illness, we just had this amazing robust conversation over the meal I cooked for them."
For most of us, the idea of even talking to a stranger is uncomfortable enough, let alone surprising them at their home, inviting yourself in, and cooking them dinner. But for Sebastian, he believes that this human connection is what's missing in our modern world - and what he's looking to bring back.
"For me, it's an incredible feeling to go and move beyond the customary 'hi'," he says. "It has been amazing to dig a bit deeper."
Digging deeper has meant getting to know his local community a little better. One of his recent dinner subjects was Dee Law, a former colleague who is, coincidentally, a fellow parent at his son's basketball team. We spoke with Dee about her experience on the receiving end of a random act of kindness.
"I met Sebastian about five years ago, working at Club Kilsyth," says Dee.
"He was the head chef and I was doing reception. A couple of years went by, and we bumped into each other as our sons play basketball together."
Last year, both of their sons were on the same team, coached by Dee's husband. As they both attended the weekly game, Dee and Sebastian struck up their friendship again.
The day that she was surprised with Sebastian's Random Act of Kindness, Dee was oblivious to his secret intentions. Earlier in the day, he had called her and asked if he could drop something off later on. It wasn't until she was driving home that the penny dropped and she realised what he had done for other families in need.
"When he arrived at our house, and I realised he was delivering an act of kindness to me and my family, I became very emotional," remembers Dee.
"He said that he was really grateful for the hours my husband and I put into the basketball club and the kids and wanted to give something back to us. It's really funny, because I feel there are other people far more worthy of this than us."
But this is the genius of Sebastian Simon's Random Acts of Kindness: he is out to celebrate everyone, no matter how great or small their suffering, or how great or small their impact on his life.
"I'm so honoured that he chose us," says Dee.
"It was one of the nicest things I have ever had done for me in I don't remember how long. There were no strings attached, he didn't expect anything in return, it was just a joy. And because it was a surprise, I was completely blown away."
Social responsibility is a hot topic in the world of hospitality. For an industry built around food, service, and communicating; it's hard to ignore the inequities in our communities between those who can afford it, and those who cannot. Or, in Sebastian's case, those who deserve it.
People like Sebastian are proving to us all, how simple it can be to close the loop. He decided to walk away from a self-serving career as a celebrity chef to instead bring his skills to his community. For him, food and cooking was about creating a connection - not about turning a profit.
"One of the things I find so fascinating with food is that we never question what we put in our mouths. We just believe the chef has created something that's non-poisonous, we pay good money for it, and we eat it. That's how we trust our chefs," says Sebastian.
"How many chefs out there actually cook with hate? With anger? How many chefs cook with love? As I said, meals bring people together. And this will take this to the next level when we deliver this as an act of kindness."
Looking forward, and Sebastian hopes to expand his Random Acts Of Kindness into a larger-scale event, with plans to create an 80-person luncheon attended by those nominated by their local community.
More than that, Sebastian hopes to inspire his fellow chefs to follow in his footsteps and look outwards to the people surrounding them, to pass on their talents.
"I don't want thousands and thousands of Instagram followers," says Sebastian.
"All I want is for one person going out there and doing something, who was inspired by me - and not publicising it anywhere! Because that one person just actually felt that feeling of being inspired to do an act of kindness."
It's impossible not to feel inspired by Sebastian's simple passion for helping others. No matter how big or small, we can all pass it forward with our local communities - after all, you never know how much one simple meal could change someone's life.
Inspired? Let us know how you plan on following on Sebastian's 'Random Acts of Kindness' mission.
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