11 September 2023

Jules Mitry cooks meals with meaning in the Balinese Spice Magic kitchen

| Dione David
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Jules Mitry at Balinese Spice Magic

Jules Mitry learned young that you can survive and be happy with very little. Photo: Balinese Spice Magic.

On paper, Mesangkepan is a Balinese concept of getting together, but if you ask Balinese Spice Magic owner Jules Mitry, it encompasses so much more.

Her parents eloped in the 80s, and soon after Jules was born into a nomadic life. Her earliest memories are of foraging through the surrounding forests for anything edible to make a meal with.

“My mother, though sheltered, was very adaptable. She made sure I was nourished. It was like magic how she could make something out of nothing,” Jules says.

“A lot of life was about survival. I remember working from a very young age and trying to live with very little. When you don’t know any different, it’s a fine time.”

There was hunger, though, and to compound it, Jules was allergic to meat, so her mother had to get creative to ensure she was on a strictly plant-based diet.

“I always watched what she was doing, but it never interested me,” Jules says.

“If you had told me one day I would be a restaurant owner, I’d have been surprised. Life is funny that way. Now I have come full circle.”

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Anyone who has enjoyed the tasty fare at Balinese Spice Magic would be surprised that not only has Jules had no formal training, but also that learning to cook was not a conscious decision.

At age 17, Jules was sponsored by a family in Dapto to come to Australia. Though her foster dad was an “amazing cook”, she found herself craving the food of her roots. So, knowing she would be unable to fund a trip home for some years, she leaned into nostalgia and taught herself.

“This was still the days of dial-up internet, when Nokias had the latest technology in mobile phones and computers were still those clunky, boxy things,” she laughs.

“I had to translate from Balinese into Indonesian and then English to figure out the ingredients and recipes.”

Though she spoke little English at the time, she began studying advanced hospitality management at Wollongong TAFE and then undertook an economics degree majoring in business innovation at the University of Wollongong. But these qualifications paved the way for careers in the corporate world that were at odds with her fundamental values.

After getting married and starting her family, Jules’s home with her husband Will became something of a hub among her community and social circles – a place where there was always a meal on offer. Leaning into it, they started a catering business and then in 2014, Balinese Spice Magic opened in the heart of Wollongong. She still recalls the opening day.

“I wasn’t familiar with a commercial kitchen, it was quite a shock,” she says.

“Somehow on opening night we had a full house and I didn’t even know how to operate the big woks. We almost burned the place down but we did it. We had a good laugh afterwards.”

Dishes and produce displayed on a table at Balinese Spice Magic in Wollongong

Balinese Spice Magic’s food is made from produce sourced from local growers. Photo: Balinese Spice Magic.

Though it’s Jules’s livelihood, Balinese Spice Magic is ostensibly run like a social enterprise. She sources the vast majority of her produce from small local growers and pays them market value. As long as she can make a living and pay her staff, she’s not worried about profits.

“I learned very early on that you can survive and even be happy, with very little,” she says.

The food served in the restaurant is cooked fresh that day, because all leftovers are distributed to the homeless via Wollongong Homeless Hub and other charities.

As she got more comfortable, Jules started cooking meals specifically for distribution to the homeless and four years ago started a seasonal Mesangkepan.

Mesangkepan is like a get-together or an informal meeting, but Jules says it’s a way of life in Bali.

“It’s routinely done. If there are things to be fixed, we get together, fix it together and a big part of that is we cook together,” she explains.

“Often there’s a roster with one family in charge of the main donation, but everyone helps and everyone in the village is encouraged to partake of the meal. It’s kind of bad luck to refuse it, because when you cook a meal together, that meal is imbued with love, good energy and blessing, and in partaking, you take that blessing with you.

“For the Mesangkepan held at Balinese Spice Magic I am the main person, but I have wonderful volunteers who help make it possible.”

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The Mesangkepan at Balinese Spice Magic is like a soup kitchen, offering a free meal to any community member and also raising funds through a ‘pay as you feel’ system for those who can afford it and want to contribute. The meals, however, are a far cry from just soup.

“We believe that everyone has a right to a nutritious and hearty meal, and this is our way to share our blessings, give back to the community and bring comfort one meal at a time,” Jules says.

This season’s Mesangkepan focuses on Syrian and African cuisine and proceeds will go to the Multicultural Communities Council of Illawarra (MCCI) Refugee Support, which provides settlement support to people from refugee backgrounds living in the Illawarra.

“I have been a long-time supporter of MCCI Refugee Support. As an immigrant, I understand how difficult it is to start a new life in another country and leave all that you knew and are familiar with behind,” Jules says.

“MCCI Refugee Support seeks to empower community members giving them the tools to navigate Australian systems and connect with others in the region to find a sense of belonging.”

Mesangkepan takes place from 11 am to 2 pm on Sunday 10 September at will be held at Balinese Spice Magic.

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