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In a large and shady deck off a humble family home in Hackett, Antonia Basic and her husband Sasa are growing vegetables and cooking for a living.
On any given Sunday you may find the deck full of people enjoying Antonia’s crêpes, cooked then and there in the front yard. Otherwise, you may take home some of her frozen soups and stews–all vegan, all cooked using whatever is growing in the garden, and all cooked with an intention of goodwill. Antonia and Sasa have called their venture ‘Canberra Magic Kitchen’.
What’s even more stripped-back about the kitchen is it is part social experiment—they have no set prices and allow people to “pay as you feel”.
The couple emigrated to Australia from Croatia in 2014 with their two daughters, Rosa, 4, and Mara, 15, both hoping to pursue their careers. Antonia was a travel agent and Sasa was an agronomist.
But jobs were hard to come by, so six months ago, Antonia decided to follow a path in an area she enjoyed and knew well. Cooking. Sasa cultivated a diverse kitchen garden in the front and back yards to support the venture.
Their food is nutritious and seasonal, and the “intention” that Antonia cooks with, and Sasa gardens with, flows from their skills as Reiki practitioners. Sasa’s formal qualifications as a Master of Plant Sciences now also encompass more unconventional gardening methods. His focus is on organic and biodynamic growing, with crystals dotting the vegetable beds for “balance and harmony”.
The results are winning fans. Antonia can serve up to 40-50 people on a Sunday – many are neighbours and locals who love the idea of fresh crêpes served under an enormous shade tree.
When it comes time to cook up her massive cauldrons of soups and stews, Antonia’s ACT Government license requires her to head into the ANU’s Food Co-Op to cook in their small commercial kitchen.
She freezes batches for convenient dinners which she sells from the large freezers set up off her kitchen – many for harried parents wanting something quick, nutritious and absolutely home-style and preservative-free.
While the vegan aspect appeals to some, Antonia laughs that most of her customers are neither vegan, nor even vegetarian. They just love the taste and nutritional boost. In winter, hearty cauldrons overflow with kale and chickpea stews, white bean and butternut stews, or buckwheat, white quinoa and sauerkraut stews. Many spices, nuts and herbs are added to bring humble vegetables to life.
In summer, an assortment of dips and salads with beetroot, borlotti beans and fresh herbs are on offer.
In recent months, word of the Magic Kitchen has spread and Antonia has been called upon to cater for increasingly large events – a function at the Slovenian Embassy, spiritual retreats, business events, and a wedding for 75. She also sells fresh food through the Dickson Health Shop, and has set up stalls at various markets around town when time permits.
This increasingly presents a problem with her “pay as you feel” method, which is impractical in a retail shop and time-consuming when Antonia is operating a cooking stall on her own. She is considering adopting a more traditional set price approach throughout 2017.
She explains that it has been a successful experiment on a small scale – with those taking food from her home more likely to be generous than not.
“On a few occasions, some people give me so much money I have to go back and say this is too much. Yes, some people only give a small amount, but it all evens out in the end.”
Antonia is extremely philosophical about her cooking. She does not want to waste food, she likes to use what is in her garden and she cooks with heart.
She and Sasa enjoy the sharing aspect of food, and often leave seedling plants, excess vegetables and herbs with an honesty box in the front yard. Sasa is happy to take on gardening jobs and share his expertise on organic and sustainable methods.
They have been humbled by the support of the public, and love living in a suburb such as Hackett, where community ties are strong and neighbours have become friends.
Maybe one day they will look to expand into a suburban restaurant, and they are looking forward to planting larger local community vegetable gardens with the support of their neighbours.
“We have loved living in Canberra because the community has been so kind and we have found our own opportunities here. We are grateful to have found our home here.”
Feature image by Martin Ollman
This article originally appeared as part of our The Simple Life article in Magazine: Back to Basics for Autumn 2017, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here.