There’s something cooking at Wesley Mission in Surry Hills, a safe house for men and women experiencing financial difficulty, unemployment or homelessness. On any given day, deep in the historical Sydney building, produce is checked and prepared; pots and pans are getting a work out; trays circulate in and out of the oven; and plates are heaped high for the hungry. The student chefs who run the kitchen are migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees.
Bright Employment, founded by former hedge-fund manager Tim Davies, launched in 2013. It focuses on preparing immigrants for jobs in the agriculture sector. It has since grown to include a separate hospitality-oriented arm, Bright Hospitality, headed by ex-Sailor Thai (and NYC’s now defunct Kittichai) head chef, Ty Bellingham. In conversation with the government's Jobactive job-seeker service, Bright offers training to new migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees as the first step in the employment process.
“Tim was taken aback by the personal plight of the migrants, and [Ty and Tim] both knew of the demand in the [hospitality] industry,” says CEO, Sharon Flynn.
The training program is run out of Wesley Mission in Surry Hills. Food is supplied by OzHarvest and The Bread & Butter Project, among others. For six weeks, students are exposed to the inner workings of a kitchen. They train in cleaning, sanitising and packing down the space; managing produce and stocktake; cooking techniques; workplace mannerisms; and they interact with the mission’s residents. The students are responsible for two main meals – breakfast and dinner, and all preparation and after-service cleaning. Lunch is, Bellingham says, a time when Wesley residents are required to be out job-seeking and “improving their lives.”
“They’re doing a certificate in cleaning operations and getting some food skills too,” says Bellingham. “We put six weeks of work together; we say, ‘turn up on time, have a good attitude, and we’ll see what happens after that'.”
At the end of the six weeks (the first two of which are theory classes at the William Angliss Institute), the students graduate with the opportunity to apply for jobs in the industry. So far, Flynn says, the response has been positive.
“We’ve trained about 60 people and we’ve placed about 60 per cent of those in employment,” Flynn says. “It doesn’t sound high but, in the hospitality industry, it’s great.”
At the end of the training, placement partner manager James Platt-Hepworth steps in.
“Once the candidates graduate it’s my job to look at their skills, temperament, age, where they live, and then place them with a partner who is looking for a job,” he says. “There’s a large attrition rate in the industry, so we look to place people with partners who want people in long-term employment.”
Currently, Bright partners include Merivale, The Star, Neil Perry’s Burger Project, AboutLife, Accor, Solotel’s Sheraton Four Points and Miss Chu, among others. The not-for-profit company aims to “make the conversion rate as high as it can be,” Platt-Hepworth says. “We’re aiming for 80 per cent.”
Bellingham says the training system is the key to the rebirth of the hospitality sector.
“We need people to come in at the bottom and work their way up, and that’s what the industry has to do,” he says. “The industry has to start training again.”
After graduating in December, former student Mary Kanu interviewed for a job at the Four Points Sheraton. Two weeks later, she was hired. She is currently a waitress.
“I had no experience in waitressing or anything, but after I did the course at Bright I had a little bit of experience,” the 19-year old Sierra Leonean says.
Kanu aims to be a restaurant manager in the future. “And I want to go further if I can,” she says.
South Sudanese immigrant Jackline Kiri graduated from the program two weeks ago and is currently interviewing for jobs. She hopes to be a chef one day.
“I want to work in the kitchen; any job – give it to me and I’ll do it,” she says. “I enjoy serving food to people. When someone asks for something, I can give it.”
“I’ve met all of these lovely people who are in this perpetual [unemployment] cycle but don’t know how to get out of it,” Bellingham says. “Bright Hospitality is hopefully one answer to a very complex question that most Western countries have with their welfare system.
“I’m not saying I’m changing people’s lives. I’m saying these guys are changing their own lives.”