In early February, friends and fellow RMIT students Georgia Hutchison and Tullia Jack came up with an idea to help bring Brunswick together.
The idea was Open Table, a concept that begs the question: what binds a community in times when we don't know our neighbours and when some of us are scared to walk home at night? Despite living in incredibly close proximity to one another, we seldom need to speak to our neighbours. Street parties seem few and far between and we bake so rarely that there always seems to be enough sugar.
It was hard not to feel nervous walking into the first official Open Table. Would I have to assume the guise of outgoing dumpster-diver, full of interesting facts, to fit in or get to know anyone? Instead, I was immediately greeted by a small circle of Hutchison and Jack’s friends and attendees occupying what looked like log cabin from junior school camp. They each came from eclectic backgrounds, from social work to landscape architecture and economics, and are volunteering with Open Table just for the experience.
They describe themselves as “well-meaning hipsters” but the people gathered to share a meal certainly aren't just the trendy, young portion of the Brunswick pie. Bruce, a deaf resident of local community housing, comes over from the kitchen, introduces himself and points at my collar. As soon as my eyes follow his finger it flicks my nose. I fell for this upwards of three times over the course of the night. Joe, who is one of Open Table's most enthusiastic regulars, is from the same community housing and equally as cheeky.
On my left side, a uni student is texting, perhaps uncomfortable around strangers and not knowing where to start. Turns out he grew up in Phillip Island, not even 10 minutes away from the house my grandpa built for our family in the 80s. Freddie, sitting across the table from me, is opening a small clinic around the corner, which will practice traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture.
A delicious, chunky sambal soup emerges from a big steamy pot in the kitchen and piles of bread arrive with it. The spoon is more of a paddle, so we can indulge in all of the chunks of fresh coriander and wholesome veggies. The chef, Praveen Vegunta, is from Brunswick East bakery Sugardough and after six weeks of the group trialling different food sources, he emailed them saying he would like to help out.
As we lick the rims of our soup cups, Freddie continues to talk, somehow moving onto the horror of the Cleveland kidnappings and questions how no one knew. Without consciously realising, we tap into why we were all there: the value of knowing your neighbours.
People drive each other home and swap email addresses. I’ve been given leftovers to take away and the local community housing residents help pack down the chairs. "We wanted to avoid having that divide between helper and helpee," says one of the organisers, Vivek Kotuk.
Similar to a few successful Melbourne-based social enterprises like Streat and Shebeen, the quality of the food is so good that once in the thick of the meal and conversation, you forget that there's an underlying social and ethical purpose to the evening. And that’s okay – the table’s open.
Open Table is free and takes place on the first Sunday of the month at Brunswick Neighbourhood House, 43a De Carle Street, Brunswick.