Loretta Bolotin had been working with refugees and asylum seekers for about eight years before she founded Free to Feed, a pop-up cooking school with a difference. The social enterprise offers a training, mentoring and employment program for asylum seekers and refugees with a background in cooking, whether they worked in hospitality in their home countries or simply love to cook. The best part? They run cooking classes, teaching anyone who’s interested how to make a Sri Lankan curry, Tehran-style hot dogs, or Persian cooking for kids.
Loretta launched Free to Feed last year with her husband Daniel Bolotin, working with asylum seeker and refugee organisations to recruit would-be cooking instructors and then link them with chefs, cafe owners, even food bloggers to mentor them ahead of leading the classes. “Unlike typical businesses, when we start engaging with cooking instructors they’re not job-ready. We do an interview and a series of cooking trials,” Loretta says. “The training is what is quite special and bespoke because it’s tailored towards each person and their own career goals.”
Loretta says the participation of members of the local hospitality industry has been vital to equipping Free to Feed’s cooking instructors with the skills they need to take a class and move into other work. Just as important has been how the classes have been embraced by Melburnians.
“We’ve been both surprised and overwhelmed by the willingness of people in the community to book into classes,” Loretta says.
The classes are run out of cafes and restaurants that give up their space, out of people’s homes for birthdays and special occasions, at markets and in schools.
“In the classes people learn about the origins of cuisine while they’re learning to cook the food,” Loretta says. “The instructors take the participants through how to cook, and share with them their personal connection to the dish and their experience of coming to Australia, as well as their cultural or religious traditions.”
Free to Feed is in the process of building a kitchen in Thornbury that will allow it to work with many more refugees and asylum seekers in the future.