From celebrated chef to eating with the homeless: interview with Simon Holt

Simon Holt

Eternity spoke to Simon Carey Holt, author of the recently released Eating Heaven: Spirituality at the Table (reviewed here), and minister at Collins St Baptist in Melbourne, a church known for its ministry to the homeless. We talked to him about the book, his career as a chef, and what we can do to eat in a way that reflects Christian love.

Eternity: Firstly, I wanted to start with congratulations on the book. But I wonder if you could start with your description of Eating Heaven, because … it’s not a book of theology, but it does engage deeply with things, it’s not an evangelistic book, but I’d feel quite comfortable giving it to a non-Christian friends, it’s not a recipe book, but it does include recipes at the end of each chapter … how are you describing the book? 

Simon Holt: For me, it’s a drawing together of two fairly deep interests in my life. Firstly, my deep interest in food, as someone who eats, and as someone who has cooked professionally, the experience of food is something I find quite captivating and engaging. Also, I’m a person of faith, a person for whom spirituality and belief are essential to who I am, so really this book was an opportunity to bring those two loves together and into conversation, and to ask what’s going on when we eat. And that touches more deeply on our spirit, and who we are: made in the image of God.

What are you hoping for the ordinary Christian to get out of this book?

I think for those who are people of faith, it’s helping them to think a little more close to home about the implications of their faith. That faith is not only something that connects us to the heavenly realities, to the language of the Sunday morning church service, but it is something that connects us to the most domestic, routine mundane aspects of our lives. God is present in every moment, and every task, and every opportunity. So how do we begin to explore and express that spirituality at the core of our ordinary lives?

I think what I was also wanting to do was to speak to people who may have no articulated sense of faith, but do have a sense that spirituality is important. There’s a great interest in society around spirituality and story and those sorts of things, but there’s also a great interest in food, and, again, how do we bring those two interests together? Especially for people who may not sit in church on a Sunday.

Which is something I think the book does well. For example, there’s a great quote from the book here: “Eating is embedded at the heart of what it means to be human.” 

Exactly. Really, from an explicitly Christian perspective, it’s there right from the beginning of the Christian story and the beginning of creation, and goes all the way through to the story of Revelation, and our anticipation of a great neighbourhood of abundance and blessing in the days to come.

It’s no surprise, I think, that food is embedded at the heart of our own faith, especially around the communion table.

I was wondering if we could talk about your story. How did your love for food start? 

It’s no surprise, I think, that food is embedded at the heart of our own faith, especially around the communion table.

I was raised in a home where the experience of the table was very much a part of everyday life, with a mother for whom cooking was not her first love. But still, she was able to invest in our development and our formation through what happened at the table. So I had this intuitive sense that food was important, but it became increasingly important for me as I discovered this whole world of creativity in the kitchen.

My brothers were all off kicking the football or playing cricket, and I was in the kitchen baking and cooking and it was my way of celebrating life, expressing some of my own giftedness and creativity.

So, when it came to the inevitable decision about profession, it was my father actually, who grew up in a very working class home, and took it as part of his vocation to find apprenticeships for his sons, so even though I very much wanted to continue on with high school and become an English teacher, my dad was very encouraging of me to go out and get a trade.

And so he encouraged me to look for an apprenticeship in cooking, and so being a very compliant son, that’s what I did!

And I just loved it. Came alive in the professional kitchen in a way that I’d never been before. And that love continues to the present day.

Microsoft Word - EH web pic.docxThere’s a few places in the book that you write about that experience, one is as a pastry chef, the other is at one of the hotels in Melbourne … 

That’s right, the Windsor hotel, one of Melbourne’s old Establishment hotels that sits opposite State Parliament. That was a part of my apprenticeship along with a number of other restaurants. I really focused on pâtissier which is dessert and pastries and what’s called garde manger which involves buffet presentations.

So I can do all sorts of things with ice sculptures, which is terribly unhelpful when it comes to making dinner at home. But I think the creativity that came into the presentation of large buffets was something I found intriguing and I still do.

Was it very difficult to leave that for ministry?

It was difficult, but I have to say that at that time in my life, I had a really limited idea about what it meant to be a disciple. And so for me, if I was really serious about my faith, which I always was, then really I grew up in a church where the missionary was the pinnacle of discipleship, and I felt like I had to leave the kitchen behind in order to respond to the call of Jesus to follow me.

As much as I can look back and see God’s hand in every decision that I made, I think today I would think very differently about that.

Because I think there are just so many diverse ways for us to explore and express the call of Jesus to follow me. And going into so-called full time ministry, or missionary work, is just one of those.

But I think at the time, I had a fairly clear understanding that one had to leave behind secular responsibilities in order to be committed to the Gospel. So it really arose out of a bit of a dysfunctional theology, but I can still look back and say, “God was in all of that.” I’m very glad for the course that my life has taken.

There will be Christians reading this who, as you did, are working in the hospitality and food industries. How can most of us in the church understand them better and love them better? 

I meet with a group of people who work in the hospitality industry: all people of faith, working in cafes, restaurants, in the big five-star hotels. And we come together once every couple of months, and we talk together about where God is, in the work that we do, and how we find a deeper connection to that.

But for the vast majority of these people, their connection to the organised gathering of people of God is quite tenuous because their profession demands that they are engaged on Sunday, at the typical worship times.

I think one of the ways that we try, here at Collins St, is gathering together people of these different groups, to provide some alternative means of support, and worship, and discipleship. But acknowledge that their calling into the industry that means they’re not going to be able to gather on Sunday.

And when they are able to be in church, we talk about faith connected to the issues that they’re facing in their everyday lives. We don’t change the language when we gather on a Sunday to overly spiritual language. But we look for the connections between the text of Scripture and the challenges that they’re facing in their professional fields.

What are some of those particular challenges?

Look, I think those that are deeply committed to the very best in the hospitality industry are working in an industry that is geared towards those at the upper-end of society. So one fellow who comes to our group is a concierge at the Westin Hotel. And he’s serving professional people at the upper end of the market, and who have more than they could ever need. He would say that he finds it very difficult to bring the call of Jesus to surrender all, to give to the poor, to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth into that place.

He would say that he finds it very difficult to bring the call of Jesus to surrender all, to give to the poor, to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth into that place.

And so, for him, it’s that real wrestling with, “How do I live that call of Jesus to a whole of life discipleship in an industry that is geared to a segment of the population that we don’t normally define as deserving of the gospel?”

So, that’s quite consistently, with the people that I work with, one of the most significant challenges. How do they think about discipleship in an industry that’s geared to profit? In an industry that is often quite excessive.

That links in with another of the themes in the book about trying to get people to think harder about where their food comes from. How can we, at our own tables, be “committed to justice and inclusion”? 

In one particular chapter, I talk about that sense of tension we feel between our commitment to beauty and creativity and our commitment to justice and inclusion. Sometimes holding those two together is a real tension.

But it’s not only a tension that the people in the hospitality industry face, but it’s a tension that all of us face. How do we live and conduct ourselves in a society as followers of Jesus who gave priority to the poor? That seems to me a tension of not just those who live in five-star hotels, but a tension that all of us have to wrestle with.

Are there ways that most ordinary Christians could be doing better at that? 

I think what we need to do is step outside the front door of your home or church, and look up and down the street and say, “Who are the people in my neighbourhood?” In any neighbourhood, there are those at the top end, and there are those at the bottom end.

That, for us here at Collins St, is typified in our location. Our front door is this very wealthy, upmarket neighbourhood. And our backdoor is very downtrodden, struggling.

And I think for any church, for any Christian, the challenge is to say “Let’s take my whole neighbourhood seriously. How do I begin to engage both ends of the spectrum?” It’s not as hard as it can seem, if we are intentional about it, if we’re ready to engage with any challenges that we find at the back door or front door is about.

Being “intentional” is a word I often hear, but what does it look like? What does it look like for you to step out the door and look at your neighbours and engage them?

Absolutely. In my context, the two ends of the social spectrum are in my face everyday. For that reason, it’s a little bit easier for me, than in the heart of the city, than for somebody who might live out in the eastern suburbs, where those opportunities are not quite as clear.

But for me, it’s about ensuring that I’m engaging with, relating to, sitting next to, eating with people at the bottom end of society. And that, for me, is about being out on the street.

We take teams of people out during the winter months with blankets and a thermos of coffee to those living out on the street, those people who are struggling with schizophrenia and are too paranoid to be placed in rooming houses.

In a sense, to go out and sit beside these people and make sure they have something to eat and something to drink is as important as the way that I sit in a fine restaurant with someone at the top end of town.

It’s not an either/or. The gospel is not a call to one portion of my neighbourhood, it’s a call into the fullness of my neighbourhood. And ensuring that I am as engaged with people all across the social spectrum, which is, in my case, much easier. It can be more challenging in a suburban context.

Changing tack a little bit, do you think technology has changed our interaction with food? 

I think the advent of the microwave oven is an illustration of wanting things quickly, immediately. And really, much of the richness of food is both in the nurturing and growth of food. In the disciplines and the investments of gardening, then food preparation, working from scratch with a set of ingredients. All of that is quite time-consuming.

We live in a society that loves speed and pace and wants things quickly, and wants things now. That too can cause a tension for us. We have to live in this technological society, but we also want to say, let’s not lose some of those deeper disciplines that keep us present to the moment, and keep us present to the development of the tomatoes in the backyard, and the slow cooking of a meal that takes time and investment.

So technology has become a great gift and yet the very thing that keeps us from that deeper engagement with our food.

Have you thought much about this culture of Instagram and Facebook? One of the jokes about Instagram for example being that it’s just for taking photos of your food. 

Well, I think any opportunity for us to really look at our food and to see its beauty and its worth is a good thing.

If people want to take photos of their food, it’s not terribly engaging for anyone else! But it is a simple way to say, let’s look at the plate and feel some sense of presence and gratitude for what’s before me.

There are negative aspects to it as well in that we rarely take pictures of food on our own tables. It’s connected to our eating out culture. And I think that’s a shame, when food is deeply connected to the home and to the family table and to the backyard. So that would be the negative side: food becomes this thing that has to be plated up in a particular way, and has to look glamourous, as some people talk about, “food pornography”, being drawn into the sensuous detail of what’s in front of us.

Do you find it difficult when somebody’s not into food, or they say, “I’d be happy with spaghetti on toast every night”? 

There’s lots of people like that. I always want to encourage them to think about the critical role that food does play in their lives. But not to the point where I think they need to be as infatuated with food as I am. That’s not a virtue, that’s just a personal interest.

Even if you do open a can of spaghetti and put it on toast, there’s still this sacred presence in that food.

I guess what I’m wanting people to do is think about the deeper meanings of food and its connections to things that really are important. Even if you do open a can of spaghetti and put it on toast, there’s still this sacred presence in that food. There’s still this wonderful God of creativity and provision of grace and redemption, and all of that is still present.

Whether it’s a meal that’s taken five hours, or from a can, it’s still there. And I want to encourage people to think a little more deeply about their food habits. But I’m not wanting people to be infatuated with food, because it, too, can become an unhelpful obsession.

How do you discern when it crosses that line from being a love and genuine passion to being an idol or an unhelpful infatuation? 

It’s a bit like when I go to an art gallery. I’m someone who doesn’t have a deeply learned appreciation for art. I can go to an art gallery, as I do in Melbourne, and I can look at art, and say I like that one, I don’t like that one. But what art can do is lead us to a deeper appreciation for what is behind the art. It leads us to think about more important issues. It leads us to appreciate beauty, and giftedness, and all those things.

But I can become infatuated with art, to the point of the art becoming the idol. If the art becomes the thing I believe in, rather than what leads me to believe in God and life, then I’m probably on the wrong track.

Food is no different.

It can become idolatrous, and I’ve worked in the industry long enough to cook for the Royal Gastronomical Society in Melbourne, which is basically a society of very well-heeled people who have far too much money and don’t know what to do with it. So they gather once a month in the Grand Ballroom at the Windsor Hotel and they have a twelve-course meal with twelve different wines.

I remember being invited as the guest chef to cook for one of those occasions, and they’re seated sixty or so of them in a horseshoe, in this beautiful ballroom with a red carpet down the middle.

And I had to come down with each of the twelve courses, and the first venture down the red carpet was a standing ovation, and I’m feeling quite good about this, you know? I’d really made it.

They’re giving a standing ovation to the potatoes.

But after three or four times of walking down the red carpet, I realised that I am a non-event as far as these people are concerned. They’re giving a standing ovation to the potatoes.

There’s something deeply wrong in that. Where we can almost come to worship food, rather than allow food to lead us into a deeper relationship with some really profound important things about human life about God.

Food, like any other thing, can be both idolatrous, or glorious.

If there was one change you could make to how people have their daily meal, what would it be? 

If I was to identify one thing, it would be about prioritising the table. Sitting down at the table each day. And that can be for the person who lives alone, as much as the person surrounded by a dozen other people.

Because sitting at the table draws our attention to what’s in front of us, and provides us with a moment to appreciate what is good about life, and what is good about the lives that we share.

And if we lose the practice of the table, and we lose that daily gathering of the table, the question is, what takes its place? My sense is that there is very little in culture that does take its place. If we lose our practice at the table, we are actually losing something that will disappear altogether.

The table is a unique gift that we let go of, to our loss.

Eating Heaven is available now from the Bible Society bookshop.