Daman has spent most of his life cooking.
He’s worked in the kitchens of some of the world’s most famous hotels, like The Savoy and The Dorchester in London.
But lately, his workplace has been his kitchen at his home in suburban Melbourne.
Along with his eight-year-old daughter Diya, he’s been busy cooking hundreds of meals each week for people struggling during the pandemic.
“Since March I started cooking three days per week, about 150 meals per day,” says Daman, who is 58.
“I started because a lot of international students are struggling. They have no rent, they have no job, there’s no support for them and they were really badly in need.”
The logistics of cooking so much food in a small kitchen are difficult. On top of that, Daman has been working as a hospitality teacher from home, while Diya has been doing remote learning.
But none of that has got in their way.
“We buy the food, we buy the containers as well, and we deliver the food in our own car. We’ve done it all from our pockets so far,” he says.
Daman is no stranger to hardship.
In the 1990s, he was working at a luxury hotel in Baghdad during the Gulf War. During bombing raids, staff and guests would hide in bomb shelters with gas masks.
In the aftermath, he travelled to Jordan. He started working as a fruit picker, but eventually was able to open his own French restaurant before he migrated to Australia in 1995.
In 2009, after a relationship breakdown, Daman spent two nights sleeping on a park bench in Kew in Melbourne’s inner east.
“I washed myself in a public toilet and went and taught at TAFE. I got a sense of what it was like to be homeless, and it really struck me,” he says.
“Those two nights changed my thinking. [I understood] how you feel when you have nobody around.
“You might have warm clothes, but still feel cold. You overlook things when you see people sleeping on the street.”
It took Daman about two years to get completely back on his feet. At the start, he was sleeping on a mattress in a shared room in student accommodation.
“I was thinking that I was in Iraq when the bombs were blasting everywhere, and I survived that,” he says.
“And now, this was another chapter in my life. It was another challenge, [and I was thinking] how could I come out of it.”
Once his life was back on track, Daman wanted to give back to other people.
He started taking food he’d cooked to a spot used by rough sleepers. And he’s kept doing it, on and off, ever since.
Food, he says, brings all kinds of people together.
“When I service people, I don’t ask for the passport, the residency stated their religion, which ethnic group,” he says.
“The food breaks down all those things.”
He has a couple of rules for the meals he cooks. They have to be nutritious, filling and tasty.
“We try the food for ourselves. They like warm pasta, they love the curry dishes, they like the pies, because they’re comfort food and filling food. They’re warm, easy to heat, things like that.
“I make a good balance whether it’s rice and curry or pasta, so it’s hearty.”
It’s also been an opportunity for Daman to share his skills in the kitchen and passion for helping others with his daughter.
It’s been rewarding for both of them. And this year, they took another step and started a YouTube channel with the aim of helping parents and children connect over cooking.
Diya has learned a lot of new dishes, like pavlova, which she likes topped with berries and pomegranate.
They’ve become minor celebrities in their community. Diya’s school principal saw their cooking videos and arranged for the pair to deliver online cooking lessons to students during lockdown.
But for Diya, the most rewarding part has been cooking for people in need.
“It makes me happy, because we’re giving food to the homeless. And we make a lot of dishes to give to them,” she says.
For Daman, there’s a lesson for everyone.
“If me and my daughter can do it, you can do it to. Why not? That’s our motto basically,” he says.
“If everyone did a little bit, we’d have a really good community.”