It’s just on lunchtime as chef Dean Keddell looks out over his near empty restaurant in Bali’s once thriving holiday district of Seminyak.
“Normally the restaurants would be full, buzzing … with people, fireworks, there would be a lot going on, but not this year,” he says.
COVID-19 has made the difference. Official figures claim there are just over 900 active cases in Bali, but Dean sees the impact of the virus in every empty table and every silent street.
“When COVID-19 hit, the numbers of people overseas cancelling trips went up and panic set in,” he says.
“I carried on for three months but I couldn’t keep going and I had to cut staff — 95 per cent of my staff are Balinese, I see them as my extended family, now they sit and wait for my call.”
It’s a dire situation. One that’s being played out in businesses right across the island. Dean watches as people leave town and return to their villages, living with their families, growing food to survive.
“COVID-19 has impacted the locals quite drastically,” Dean says.
Bali’s beachy glitz hides everyday poverty
Even before coronavirus, Bali had a major problem with poverty.
Beyond the tourist centres many families struggle to make ends meet. Food is limited, healthcare basic and education a prized possession.
In truth, Dean says, many Balinese survive only with the help of charity.
“The Government says nobody will starve. It’s hard to imagine though if it wasn’t for the charities some people would have died long ago. Those charities need money to do their work”.
The charities he’s talking about include the Bali Children Foundation, established by Australian entrepreneur and renowned philanthropist Margaret Barry, that provides everything from food to education programs for 8,000 young people across the islands.
Now Margaret finds the demand for the Foundation’s services rising, and the funds to pay for them harder to find.
“In a normal year I’d go back to Australia, marketing the Foundation to raise money to continue our work,” Margaret says. “Without question this is the longest time I’ve had, not going back.”
It’s clear talking to her that things are getting desperate. Despite already providing over 1,650,000 meals to remote communities, the demand continues to grow.
“Right now we have funding for food until February and education resources until March,” she says. Beyond that timeframe, she adds, there is simply a big question mark.
And then something magical happened
Which brings us back to Dean Keddell.
Sitting in Seminyak, watching the lockdown take effect, he began asking himself how he could give his remaining staff something to do. More than that, how could he help the community survive?
He started thinking, if Australians wouldn’t and couldn’t come to Bali, why not take Bali to Australia? The question was how.
“A cookbook of course,” he says, laughing.
But deciding to create a cookbook was the easy part. His problems were many. First up, how would he differentiate his cookbook from every other cookbook in a crowded market?
“Even before COVID-19, I’d been planning a cookbook. I thought and thought, and I was boring myself to death,” he says.
“Then the idea of a community cookbook came up. It started with asking my staff what recipes they would suggest. I went to their homes, ate with them and heard their stories.”
At that point, Dean says something magical happened.
“I realised it’s the emotion behind the food [that’s important],” he says. “You start out asking someone for their favourite dish and then you ask them where it came from and a chef says when he tastes the food he feels his mother’s warmth. That really hit me.”
But a new problem emerged. And a solution
His second problem was publishing a high quality cookbook with no experience.
Enter Jonette George, owner of Sunday Press Melbourne.
With a track record producing quality books about food and its origins, she offered to help bring Dean’s vision to life.
“Having already written a book about the food in Bali, I wanted to help the local people,” Jonette says. “I wanted to dig deeper and go behind the scenes to find out how people, some of them quite poor and with few resources, make their favourite dishes.”
The result is Our Bali — Your Bali, a cookbook that Dean says will delight cooks but gives the reader something much more than a book of recipes.
‘They watch you eat every bite’
Like every author, Dean says he learned a lot as he researched and helped put the book together.
As he researched one chapter he met the chefs from 14 warungs — the small and simple, usually open air and family run, cafes that are found everywhere in Bali — to ask about their kitchen secrets.
“I was met with hospitality. They wanted me to eat their food,” Dean says. “They didn’t want me to pay for it. They showed me warmth and sincerity that is the same as a five star restaurant. They watch you eat every bite to see if you enjoy it as much as they love cooking it”.
Dean says he learned something else too as he wrote the book: “It’s expensive, it’s a big investment to make this happen.”
To combat the lack of funds up front, he set up a website where people who love Bali can pre-order and pay for a book before it is published. The promise is that it will be ready and delivered for Mother’s Day in Australia in May.
The goal is to sell 5,000 copies. It’s a big ask, but all the money he makes will be poured into the island’s hard-pressed charities.
A valuable lesson
There are plenty of people that want this project to proceed including Margaret Barry. She knows book sales will fund food deliveries, but she also knows the money she spends will go back into the community.
“There are so many local people that are part of our organisation. We have 16 staff, teachers, interns and people who deliver the food,” she says.
“Locals help with the delivery, we buy locally and there is strong community support.
David Booth runs the East Bali Poverty Project, which is all about sustainable development providing Balinese in remote villages with water, toilets and food. It’s also given young people the chance to work beyond their villages. But with unemployment rising, providing food has become the priority.
“At the moment, monthly food packages are essential,” he says.
“In December I spent money I didn’t have and now I’m confronted with having to pay for January’s food distribution … there are malnourished children out there”.
Summing up the whole project Dean still can’t believe he’s come this far.
People have given him recipes, they’ve given him their time and expertise to make the book and already food lovers are sending money up front to make the book happen.
But most of all, it’s the Balinese people he wants to thank and the lesson in life they gave him.
“I really understood the idea that the less someone has the more likely they are to give”.
It’s a valuable lesson in troubled times and one that’s so easy to forget.