Co-founder and creative director Loretta Bolotin and chef-teacher Nayran Tabiei.
Free To Feed in Melbourne employs refugees and asylum seekers with a passion for food. Its most established enterprise is its cooking school, where its chefs teach regular classes on how to make dishes from their home countries. It connects its cooks and chefs to the home countries they were forced to flee, and to the broader Australian community through food and the stories that come with the dishes each chef prepares. Support from the Bennelong Foundation will allow Free to Feed to expand its current programme and provide more opportunities for employment within the organisation.
Loretta Bolotin: One of the main challenges faced by the people who have recently arrived in Australia is they can’t find work. Some of them have had amazing careers at home; they were entrepreneurs or business owners, but when they come to Australia most of the skills or qualifications, and even their work experience, aren’t recognised. And references are in another country. People don’t know how to write things like cover letters. People are lonely and really isolated – living in suburbs way out on the fringes of Melbourne or Sydney without networks or community. The relationship between those two things is: if you don’t have a community you can meet people at work, but if you’re not working, you don’t know anyone. It means all of the trauma they have gone through comes up and it’s hard to establish themselves and move forward.
The people we work with get paid for all training and teaching the classes, which means they come off welfare. We decided to focus particularly on food and people who have backgrounds in food.
It works because a lot of the countries these people are coming from are passionate about food and it’s part of the culture. It’s really nice to be able to grow with people. For some of our cooks this is a stepping stone into another career. For others it’s something they’ll do while they’re thinking about launching their own business.
We nurture our staff. However many sessions they need in professional development, or however much support they need in the kitchen, we take all of that on and we’re there for them. We fill in forms, help to appeal traffic fines, explore immigration avenues for their kids who are still overseas. A lot of our cooks and chefs have a hard life. So the work is emotional. They want to meet people and feel connected and have a sense of meaning in this new country. People leave the classes feeling that refugees and people seeking asylum are just humans and they’ve got heaps to contribute to this society – that’s pretty special.
Nayran Tabiei: I started with Free to Feed in November 2016. In my country I have teaching experience and before I start with Free to Feed I volunteered in cultural cooking for Maribyrnong City Council.
I’m from Syria, Damascus, and every area in Syria have their spices and their vegetables. The people I teach love the pie I make, we call it satayer in my country. It’s dough we make from scratch. After that we put haloumi, and three or four types of cheese. And it has special spices from Syria. Making it is like flying to Syria, because the smell and the spices take you there.
It’s hard as a newcomer. When I started the job I was so happy Loretta didn’t ask me for a certificate because everywhere here ask for our [cooking qualification]. We have the experience, of course, but they want the paper. But we escaped with only our clothes, nothing else with us. My hands are my certificate.
When I teach I tell stories about the food. It’s a good experience for me to see how the people love my food, because I’m new here, even now after six years. I’m still learning things from Australians because here it’s multicultural. It’s different; the people what they like, what they think. It’s fun for me because the people come with this passion to learn and they love it. And at the end of the classes we are friends and they ask me questions about the food and recipes.