By Triana Hernandez
In the heart of Footscray, in an area known to the locals as ‘Little Africa’, lies one of Melbourne’s most delicious restaurants – Ras Dashen.
If Urbanspoon reviews mean anything to you, then you might like to know that Rash Dashen has the highest rating in the African food category in the whole of Melbourne (97%). Otherwise, you can just take my word for it; this restaurant will make your heart sing.
During my first visit to Ras Dashen I was impressed by the usual things that people feel impressed by when attending restaurants: the service was quick and attentive; the food was exotic, delicious and the prices were exquisitely cheap. I felt like I had found quite a little gem. However, after a few more visits I started to realise that the real artistry that made this place so unique was in the heart of the owners – Mr. Wondimu (manager) and his beautiful wife Mrs.Alemity (head chef).
Wondi (as he prefers to be called) is someone who brings sunshine into a room whenever he smiles. When I decided to interview him for this piece I could already tell he would be someone wise and inspirational, but I had no idea the extent to which I was sitting in front of an exceptional man.
Wondi is a survivor of a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia. As the violence intensified in the mid-70s, he was in the middle of studying agricultural engineering at university. He was targeted by the authorities as a result of his fluency in English and high level of education – a combination considered dangerous by those in power. After years of fleeing persecution he had no option but to leave behind his beloved homeland and move to a refugee camp in Sudan, where he stayed for 6 years.
During this part of our conversation Wondi does not go into much detail about the things he must have seen throughout this harrowing period of his life. Instead, he focuses on the positive aspects; at the refugee camp he was able to save money working for the Red Cross and the Red Crescent as an interpreter. This was also the place where he met his lovely wife.
In 1994 Wondi and his wife moved to a “very generous and welcoming” New Zealand as political refugees and relished their chance at starting a new life in a place free of oppression and full of opportunities.
Mr.Wondi embodies the benefit of a belief in hard work, knowledge and the power of learning more than anyone I have ever met. Upon moving to NZ he enrolled at the University of Auckland to study engineering whilst tutoring in mathematics and graduating at the top of his class. During his 14 years living in Melbourne he has held various positions in the field of engineering whilst also studying Renewable Energy Technology (Swinburne) and an Advanced Diploma of Electrical Engineering (Vic Uni).
Despite Wondi’s multitude of accomplishments, when I talk to him I can tell that at the top of his agenda are his loved ones. He tells me that he wants his children to be happy and enjoy their youth – something he never had a chance to do. His son is studying cinematography and is also a DJ. I can tell that knowing that his children have the freedom to do what they love makes him a very proud father.
As much as Wondi believes in hard work, he knows that you must never forget to enjoy yourself and value what you have: “people should appreciate the freedom and opportunities they have in Australia. I want everyone to appreciate what they have, to be tolerant, love one another and remember to have fun when you can.”
My meal comes and it smells amazing. There is something about this place that makes it feel ever so homely. Maybe it is because the traditional way to enjoy the meals is to eat with your fingers, or perhaps it is the cotton-like softness of the traditional injera bread. Either way, there is something magical about Alemity’s cooking. After all, she has been cooking since she was young and living in Ethiopia and the food feels like it is filled with the wisdom and love of her family and community.
Right before leaving the restaurant I look at the logo and realised something I’d forgotten to ask; what does Ras Dashen mean? “Ras Dashen is the name of the highest mountain in Ethiopia, it is 4,500 meters. We chose it because we wanted our restaurant to have the highest quality and service”. Wondi knows this mountain quite personally, having climbed it in the seventies when fleeing persecution.
In the future, their dream is to expand their business and keep introducing Ethiopian food and culture to other parts of Melbourne. I wish him and his wife the best of luck with their amazing goals. Ras Dashen is undoubtedly one of the finest treasures of Footscray and its outstanding quality goes beyond its food and service- it is the home of two truly inspirational people.