Story by: Lisa Marie Corso @lisamariecorso
Photos by: Amelia Stanwix @ameliastanwix
Loretta wears: Linen Pantsuit (shop) + Eclipse Top (shop)
Food is both a necessity and product of life. Through food we learn about each other’s stories, cultural backgrounds and family traditions like how Nonnas put a secret pinch of sugar in their tomato sauce. Food brings people together and Melbourne-based entrepreneur Loretta Bolotin knows this best because she brings people together every day with food and her social enterprise Free to Feed.
From a young age Loretta always knew she wanted to do something bigger than herself and while studying International Development, spent many years overseas working with people seeking asylum. Upon returning home to Melbourne, she wanted to put into practice her experiences abroad and develop a community driven business that would give employment opportunities to refugees based in Melbourne. Free to Feed was the ambitious business idea that ticked all of Loretta and her partner Daniel's social prerequisites – a cooking school facilitated by refugees living in a culinary curious Melbourne.
The social enterprise was launched by the couple in 2015 and in the years since has grown to become a beloved community epicentre to learn and exchange stories of people and place. Free to Feed now work with a roster of 12 cooking instructors a year from their kitchens in Thornbury and Northcote. We caught up with co-founder Loretta, a short few weeks after the arrival of her second child Sol, to chat about how food unites people one mouthful at a time.
Your story is super impressive but let’s start from the very beginning to when you were at school. Did you always have this sense of community within you?
I always had a sense of wanting to do something that was a little bigger than myself. I grew up in a very humble neighbourhood in Melbourne’s deep northern suburbs and had the privilege of going to a school where everyone came from diverse international backgrounds. I think having this cultural exposure from a young age planted the seed for wanting to work and engage with the world around me.
After school what did you study and tell us about some of the travel you did for work?
I was studying International Development at University so there were lots of opportunities to volunteer and travel abroad. One of my earliest professional encounters with refugees was going to Christmas Island and seeing the situation in the detention centres firsthand. Later I worked with young refugees from Syria in Egypt, both experiences were really formative for me. I also worked in East Africa where I actually met my partner Dan and funnily enough we ran workshops for unemployed Kenyan youth where we purchased a pizza oven and taught them how to make pizzas that they could sell in their village to make some income! This was about 5 years before Free to Feed!
How did your experience overseas influence what you wanted to do when your returned back home to Australia?
I was working in the refugee sector with some big NGOs both locally and abroad, including the Australian Red Cross. Unfortunately it was difficult to get innovative ideas off the ground in those settings. When we had our first baby we lived abroad and I worked in the Netherlands during the refugee crisis in Europe. The job looked like it was going to be an amazing opportunity but I actually spent a lot of time doing administration and dreaming about uplifting people seeking asylum in a more hands-on way. We brewed on this self-led lifestyle and developed many ideas, deciding to return home to Melbourne to test them out in our own backyard.
So the idea that stuck and eventually took off was Free to Feed?
Yes! I think a week after we got back from overseas we organised a big Afghan dinner for a bunch of friends. I called up some of my former clients who were young Afghani refugees who were incredible cooks and pitched them the idea. I said “I want to come shopping with you in Dandenong and let’s cook up a massive feast just like you were having a party in Kabul”. We ended up cooking a big traditional barbecue and found that most people weren’t just interested in eating the food but wanted to know about the flavours and how they might replicate the dishes in their own kitchens. They didn’t want to be passive recipients, they wanted to learn and hear stories. From this dinner the idea of Free to Feed was truly born!
How did you take that original experimental dinner and flesh it out into a fully-fledged social enterprise?
It’s been almost three years of very hard work! In the beginning we funded the project with our own money – we had just enough to buy the bare minimum to get started. We also turned to the community who generously donated kitchens and expertise to get us up and running. Once this was all in play, we connected with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, who sent us the resumes of some really promising cooks. We interviewed them and for the successful applicants we established our own Free to Feed training program. We did lots of cooking trials, tastings, recipe writing and we especially focused on the presentation of their stories.
Why do you think food brings people together and helps open minds?
Food is universal and it is a vehicle through which people can explore new cultures. Everyone loves eating and it’s really hard to hate while you’re tasting really good food. In our experience when people’s sense of taste and smell are being stimulated, they feel more relaxed and begin to be open and curious.
Who are some of the current Free to Feed cooks and what’s their culinary specialty?
We’re so lucky to have so many amazing cooks from around the world work their magic in our kitchen at Free to Feed. Typically in a year we try and work with 12 cooking instructors. One of our cooks who’s food I am most excited to eat is the wonderful Manel from Malaysia, she has a Tamil-Hindu, Indian, Malaysian background and cooks this beautiful mix! And Rawan from Iraq, her salads rival Ottolenghi’s and she puts together a really tasty Middle Eastern grazing table!
What’s one of your favourite things to currently eat in the Free to Feed kitchen?
Given it’s been winter and I was pregnant for the last nine months I was craving and eating a lot of wholesome and healthy curries particularly a very spicy dahl that one of our instructors Charu from Sri Lanka makes. The fire in this dish was really good for me during pregnancy and so homely and comforting!
What has been your most rewarding experience running Free to Feed so far?
Seeing our cooking instructors transform in confidence from when they first approach us to when they’ve been with us for many months. It’s also rewarding to see the atmosphere in our events and classes where complete strangers laugh, talk and cook together like extended family members.
A daily ritual you could not live without - essential to your mindfulness?
It’s always a juggle having two kids, so I make an effort to have mindful moment of connection, outside of the hustle and bustle of work and family routines, with each of them throughout the day. It’s really grounding to connect with my kids, so we might go for a walk, a swim or cook together.
The latest addition to the Free to Feed Family is your newborn Sol! How did you prepare yourself and your business so that you could manage a healthy work and life balance?
I guess something that was really important while getting ready to have a second baby was building a really strong reliable team. It was important to acknowledge my limitations and capacity and build a team that’s able to step in and champion Free to Feed in my absence. Knowing that I could step away to have a baby and know there’s a solid team of staff, volunteers and cooks with a shared vision is so reassuring.
What’s your daily work wardrobe involve?
To me it’s really important I feel good about myself so that I can feel confident and focused at work and getting dressed in the morning in the right outfit means I’ll start the day in a positive way. I like to have some reliable go-to staples that I can throw together as I don’t have much time to myself to get ready. I really like jumpsuits because they are kind of like two items in one and require less brain space!
And lastly, how would you describe Gorman to a friend?
Gorman is playful! Our cooking classes are often attended by wonderful women wearing their Gorman prints – it’s vibrant and fun!