Inner West Independent

Inner West girls get a master class in cooking

Masterchef 2016 winner Elena Duggan (right) with staff and students at the Girls' Refuge in Leichhardt. Photo: Supplied

By ALLISON HORE

Girls at the Girl’s Refuge in Leichhardt had the opportunity to take part in their own special Masterclass with 2016 Masterchef winner, Elena Duggan. 

Ms. Duggan told the Inner West Independent she has been looking for ways to get involved with the organisation after hearing about them through a friend. She said the timing of International Women’s Day to run a class was the “perfect fit.”

“We were all wondering how we could collaborate and offer the young women a joyful learning, eating and connecting experience,” she explained.

The dish she chose to teach the girls was one she invented for the semi final of Masterchef Australia 2016, “Apple Bickies, and Cheese.” She says the flavours are inspired by a combination of Dutch spice cookies “that would not exist without the Indonesian spice influence” and Australian roadside snacks. 

“I started developing this recipe in my second week of being a contestant, and ended up cooking it for the King and Queen of the Netherlands, it is quite personal and yet has gone all around the world with me,” she said.

Plating up meals with the help of a Masterchef winner. Photo: Supplied

Overall the session was a success, with the participants enjoying Elena’s storytelling and overcoming their initial shyness to enthusiastically plate, taste and share the food. 

“I wanted to keep the elements all separate, so the young women cooking and eating alongside me, could easily see how they could recreate their favourite parts and use them alongside their favourite flavours, adapting to their tastes, abilities and cooking with the seasons,” Ms. Duggan explained.

“This also allowed for creative fun when it came to presentation, with final dishes appearing similarly to Opera House Sails, all the way to a very sweet stylized frog.”

Food for independence

The Girls Refuge supports young women and non-binary people aged between 13 and 17 who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Established in 1975 as the “Young People’s Refuge”, the refuge was one of the first youth refuges in NSW. 

Now they care for over 200 young people living in the refuge and in the community. 

A major part of the organisation’s operation is helping young people to build their independence. She said at the refuge the girls take turns to cook alongside a staff member each night and some of the girls show a real interest in and knack for cooking.

“A lot of the young people we support move into independent living at a young age,” explained Olivia Nguy, the refuge’s general manager.

“Developing cooking skills is a huge part of that process, together with being able to eat nutritious and affordable food.”

But food is not only important for physical sustenance and nutrition, it can also provide “ mental nourishment,” be “good for the soul” and provide an interactive mechanism for storytelling, says Ms. Duggan. 

“If we have learned anything from living through the pandemic, it is about how much our wellbeing relies on connection to one another, and what better way to connect, than over a shared meal, whether its virtual or in real life, or simply from a recipe handed down,” she said.

“We all understand food, a language we all speak and a shared life experience we can all share, no matter how humble or grand, we can connect.”

Ms. Nguy agrees that cooking can be a fun and enjoyable experience, and said for the young people who show enthusiasm for and promise in it, it can open up many doors in the future.

“Of course for some cooking is also a really enjoyable activity in itself, which is great for self-care, grounding, and also a sense of mastery,” she said.

“Some young people coming through The Girls Refuge already have excellent cooking skills and a real interest in it, which can open up all sorts of career related doors!”

Maximising inclusion

When she teaches people to cook Ms. Duggan said she avoids expensive and inaccessible equipment and ingredients. Where necessary, she also switches up ingredients to ensure her recipes are culturally sensitive. She hopes that through these means she can “maximise inclusion, so that every person’s experience is a positive one.”

“Access to sustenance, resources and equipment is not always easy, and I’m glad that places like the Girls Refuge have created a safe and joyful learning environment in their kitchen and dining spaces,” she said.

Although Ms. Duggan is busy with lots of other projects, such as her podcast ‘Appetite for Change’ which celebrates organisations which utilise the “power of food” for social good, she said she would love to maintain a relationship with the Girls’ Refuge. She is already in discussions with the organisation to teach more classes “arming” the girls with nutritious and affordable “fail safe recipes” over the next few months. 

“I’m so grateful for the Girls’ Refuge and the tireless energy, joy and support the staff provide to all the young women utilising their services,” she said. 

“They provide safe, necessary, urgent and ongoing support, their work is so important and valued and can be absolutely life changing.”

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