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Welcome to the table

Megan Dangen
Posted September 11, 2017

Megan Dangen was a contestant on the hit Australian show My Kitchen Rules, and today she is using her formidable cooking skills to feed up to a hundred people every week, as part of Royal Oak Community Ministries.

If you’d asked me five years ago what I would be doing now, I wouldn’t have thought that I would be working for The Salvation Army doing what I’m doing,’ reflects Megan Dangen, centre manager at Royal Oak Community Ministries. ‘But I’m really, really enjoying what I’m doing, and using my skills to cook and serve others.’

For the past three-and-a-half years, Megan has brought her unique flavour to Royal Oak Community Ministries. It’s a busy hub that serves the inner city of Auckland and fringe suburbs, providing welfare, food parcels, counselling, social work support, and emergency and transitional housing.

But every Tuesday, you’ll find Megan in the kitchen cooking for the weekly ‘family meal’, attended by between 80–100 people. Everyone is welcome to the table, ‘from the person that walks in and wants a food parcel, to someone heavily involved in our programmes, to the person that just needs some company.’

The initiative began as a way of engaging clients and modelling family meal time. ‘Some of the families hadn’t actually sat at a table and had a meal with their family,’ explains Megan. ‘The first few months children were running around, and they didn’t know how to use a knife and fork. But as they began sitting down as a family, it started to happen naturally.’

Through the dinner, many of the families are now plugged into the monthly ‘Messy Church’—a family orientated church service run at Royal Oak. ‘The cool thing about it is that families have committed to our meal and Messy Church, and their transformation is amazing. They’ve come from very broken lives, but now they’re engaged. And it’s not just the practical help of giving them a meal; it’s the spiritual side as well.

‘They critique me too,’ adds Megan with a laugh—‘They’ll come up to me and tell me how I did with my cooking.’

Super home chef

It’s just as well Megan is used to being judged. In fact, it was five years ago that Megan and her fiancé Simon Yandall won out over thousands of applicants to make it on to the hit Aussie reality cooking show My Kitchen Rules.

Megan applied on a whim after watching MKR on TV, and was surprised when the next day she was asked to do an online interview. Next, they had to cook and interview in front of the camera.

‘Every step of the way I just thought they were going to say “no way”,’ she recalls. But, with only a week and a half’s notice, they were told they were going to Australia to be contestants on the show. ‘The whole time I had thought that  we were auditioning for the New Zealand version. But, bam, we were off to Oz!’

The next four months were a whirlwind. The first ‘instant restaurant’ rounds—where contestants visit each other’s houses—were some of the most intense. They had to submit 150 recipes for a three-course meal, and the producers only told them the night before which three recipes they would be cooking.

‘We had a lot of drama at our home restaurant because our oven broke and our pavlovas flopped, and it was terrible,’ remembers Megan. ‘You’ve got the mics on and you’ve got the camera right in front of you, and producers yelling at you to start talking. It’s quite bizarre.’

The day of the ‘instant restaurant’ started at 5 am, and contestants could be around the table until the early hours of the next morning. ‘You might not be having dessert until 2 am, because the cooks have lost all sense of time management, or they had to cook the main twice.’

It may look glamorous on TV, but it was hugely straining on all the relationships, adds Megan. She and Simon were the only non-Aussie contestants, so they didn’t have family or friends to turn to. ‘We just had to hustle and we’d be going down to the hotel’s restaurant and saying “talk to us”.’

But Megan and Simon came out of it strongly, and are still cooking together. ‘I would say I was pretty passionate about cooking, but going on MKR showed me that there’s the home cook, and there’s the super home cook. I had to become that super home cook.’

So you weren’t making truffle jus before MKR? ‘I wasn’t then, but I am now!’ laughs Megan. ‘We have a lot of people over for dinner. I love the challenge of conquering a new recipe or a new skill or technique.’

Back home in New Zealand, after being voted off half way through the series, Megan and Simon had the chance to represent brands, cook for dinner parties and be involved in competitions. But, after years managing an early childhood centre, the opportunity came up to be involved with Royal Oak Community Ministries—and that’s when Megan knew she had found her new vocation.

Homemade skills

Megan grew up in The Salvation Army—her parents Rod and Sue Ellis were officers and are still involved in ministry. And being back on familiar ground has re-ignited Megan’s own faith. ‘I’ve always had a deep belief in God. And working here,

I see the difference God makes—from the people I work with to the people we serve, God has made a difference in their lives. And I guess I want that too.’

Today, there’s a lot of laughter going on at the Community Ministries centre. That’s because another cooking initiative is in full swing—it’s the weekly cooking class for single mums who are attending the 8–12 week transitional housing programme, but it’s also open to anyone involved with Community Ministries.

Right now they are cooking the ‘World Famous in Mangere Teriyaki Chicken Salad’, followed by brownies with fruit salad. ‘They get to cook nutritious budget meals and enjoy lunch together, then take home the recipes and cook for their families,’ explains Megan. A crèche is put on, so the mums can easily attend the classes.

The emphasis is on healthy meals that can feed the family for under $15—including shepherd’s pie and pasta, as well as homemade versions of popular takeaways like burgers, fried rice and chow mein.  They even learn a healthy version of the ‘boil up’. The women go to the supermarket and learn about ingredients, as well as substitutions so they can be resourceful with what they already have in the cupboard.

‘I’ve seen a lot of changes in a lot of women,’ says cooking tutor Rose Tuine. ‘We had someone who has just recently left the programme, who never cooked at all. She now has a new place and cooks every day. She came in and thanked us for helping her get those skills. And it’s not just her, it’s for her children—and it’s a lifetime skill that she can keep growing.’

Many of the mums come from a generation that have lost the art of home cooking. ‘You’ll get the ones who don’t know how to cook because their parents never really cooked, and there are some who are just in the habit of getting takeaways,’ explains Rose. ‘They really enjoy the classes.’

In fact, the classes have proved to be a real turning point for many. ‘We’ve got women that come from really vulnerable situations and in the past it’s been really hard to engage them,’ says Megan. ‘But they turn up every week, they’re enjoying cooking and building a recipe folder. They’re not on their phones or out smoking, they’re really engaged. And they will take those skills with them when they leave the programme.’

The women also attend a weekly parenting class that focuses on attachment, child behaviour, teaches discipline rather than punishment, and explains brain development. ‘The classes are available to anyone in the community, and they’re bulging at the seams,’ exclaims Megan.

These courses are just one of the strings in the bow of the national Community Ministries programme. Seeing lives transformed day by day is what it’s all about, sums up Megan. ‘It’s the little things, like walking out in the car park and seeing a mother and daughter crying because they’ve received food and they know they’re going to be able to eat over the weekend. Or getting a card from someone saying how different their life is now compared to how it was.’

If you’d asked Megan five years ago where she would be today, she would never imagined it would be living and breathing Community Ministries—but she is exactly where she is meant to be.

by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 9 September 2017, pp6-9
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.