s Toko-Pa Turner puts it, the practice of belonging is not seeking prowess or dominion over anyone else, but the ability to live in the conversation between things. This is a deepening movement into relationships with the self and others.
I once visited the oldest restaurant in Kyoto. What resonated wasn't the antiques or the vast array of ornaments they had, but rather an altar resting above the place where they cooked the rice. I had always wanted to attain that level of reverence, I just didn't know how.
Everything fell apart that same year. I was working too much and had neglected everything around me including myself. I broke up with my business partner who also happened to be my life partner at the time. I fell apart internally and resorted to work and alcohol to keep me going. I kept to myself and pretended that everything was fine as I had to keep the restaurant afloat. This went on for a year before I began to seek professional help.
In 2014 I began the process of healing because my dismissive strategies no longer helped and I wanted to be in the present moment; to embrace life and all the value it possessed.
Through immense therapy and mediation I began to address my traumas, confronting experiences that I thought were benign and harmless. I learnt that trauma isn't always episodic and saw the desperate child hiding within me. I couldn't maintain love and relationships for a reason. It dawned on me that if I couldn't have a relationship with myself, how could I have a relationship with anything at all? This practice allows me to cultivate a sense of agency and acquire a range of responses available to us.
It took me three years of intense therapy to be in a space that I was comfortable in, and what I have realized is how important it is to feel like you belong. To feel accepted and be embraced by our innate creativity, I began to find gratitude in everything around me and formed relationships through multiples of daily interactions. Interactions that formed reciprocity, and diminished expectations and conditions. I think it was through this daily practice of self care that I was able to form a relationship with others and maintain my role in this ecology.
When I opened Ubuntu in 2018 I began to utilize my experience to help my staff find their relationship with themselves through food. To retrace their way back home and find their sense of self.
Something that is critical in my environment is creating a safe and comfortable space—for chefs in particular—to work in the hopes that they can transform into the best version of themselves in their personal and professional lives.
Ubuntu Canteen is a place where connection is everything; reconnecting the people who work there to themselves and each other, and giving them the opportunity to really explore who they are and where they belong in the world.
The ethos of our establishment has always been about who we are in relation to others, and I firmly believe that until we are free from the burden of ourselves we simply cannot achieve freedom in life itself. This is very apparent in most of the restaurants I have worked in. Food is no longer sanctified but rather utilized as a means to self validate. Food then became this resource to be extracted, manipulated, and disregarded once consumed. We then dilute the intention of food. The sacredness and convivial nature becomes a means to subjugate, colonize, and exploit. The results are rampant abuse and unworkable conditions.
Reconnecting chefs with food requires more than a day's work. It involves digging deep into the patriarchy of our own cultures and exploring different ways of doing things.
We need to realize the permanent part of our soul and that to produce food, we must learn to respect nature itself and this recognition must amount to a living faith. Being a “restaurant” is not necessarily about commodifying a particular version of food to serve the capitalistic system, but rather serving food that serves the people who cook it, produce it, and the community itself. This is the basis of food sovereignty.
At Ubuntu, we encourage the chefs that work with us to speak and express what is inherently theirs through their thoughts and culture; to further expose themselves and tell their own version of their story through the food they cook.
This requires a lot of faith, and relinquishing that kind of control isn’t easy for a lot of people. Admittedly, this is not a model that is easily scalable. I’m working with a lot of precarious circumstances under the trust and faith that the people working with me will wake up each day and devote themselves to themselves and others with much reverence and gratitude. With these expressions, we find ways to translate food onto the plate together.
When we reconnect with ourselves and where we come from, we can connect with everything else around us. We can form friendships and communities that we direly need, especially after the pandemic.
When thinking about food, I urge you to ask yourself: What does food mean to me and what are the ways I can deepen my relationship with said food in a way that would be holistic and pure?
I always think of my grandmother's cooking and why it is often exceedingly better than restaurants. It is because the intention and energy behind the dishes is pure love.