Hostplus Trailblazer Award

The refugee advocate using the dinner table as a platform for change.

Hearing Loretta Bolotin talk about the meaning of hospitality makes you want to immediately pull up a chair at Free to Feed. The social enterprise she co-founded with her husband Daniel Bolotin is all about creating job opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers, but it’s equally focused on delivering memorable experiences for guests.

“It’s about kindness, caring, welcome, looking after people,” says Bolotin. “All the little details. Ensuring that when guests come around your table they’re treated like family.”

The refugees and asylum seekers who create this warm welcome deliver cooking classes and private dinners, sharing in the process some of their culture, whether that’s Iranian, Sri Lankan, Malay or Afghan, with the wider community. A typical class begins with hot tea and a snack before guests roll up their sleeves to prepare a feast, with each dish carefully selected by an instructor as a reflection of their culture and rituals.

“It’s a little like cooking with a grandmother or an elder,” says Bolotin. “It’s really collaborative and sometimes you even get told off along the way!”

There are no recipe cards handed out (they’re emailed to you after the event) so the focus stays on sharing stories, listening, asking questions and learning from one another.

“It’s like going to a different country for three hours,” says Bolotin.

She founded Free to Feed at the age of 25, when she returned to Melbourne after seven years of doing frontline case-work with refugees and asylum seekers in East Africa, Turkey and Christmas Island, as well as work in human rights at The Hague.

“I was doing a lot of talking with people about what their challenges were,” she says. Not knowing anybody and not being able to get a job were the most common. “With Free to Feed we feel that we’re directly addressing those core challenges.”

The organisation gives recent arrivals that all-important foot in the door through a 12-month employment program. They learn the ropes of a commercial kitchen, get support in adjusting to life in their new community and walk away with an Australian reference for their CV. Many have gone on to work in catering, butchery or even to start their own businesses. Hamed Allahyari, an Iranian chef and former asylum seeker, opened Café Sunshine and SalamaTea to an enthusiastic local following in 2019, after teaching more than 200 classes in the Free to Feed kitchens. His business recently got a glowing review in The Age.

The idea for Free to Feed came from Bolotin’s experience as a guest at many other people’s tables when she was working overseas, as well as the passion she saw among many refugees when they would discuss the food of their homes. If a meal is one of the best ways to bring people together and create connections, why not get people out of the kitchen and directly involved with curious guests? Bolotin and her husband continued to refine the idea and Free to Feed was born in 2015.

In the early days, she was packing ingredients and working on the floor, on top of her duties as CEO. Now she has a team around her that bring decades of hospitality experience, in some cases from such Melbourne institutions as Gerald’s Bar. This is melded with what Bolotin calls the “old-fashioned hospitality” of participants’ cultures.

It’s a style that people like. Since 2015, close to 24,000 people have attended a Free to Feed event. All in all, the kitchens have employed 50 people over that time, after starting out with a group of four refugees and asylum seekers.

When restrictions were placed on events and gatherings in March due to coronavirus, Bolotin quickly changed gears, launching a home delivery arm called Brave Meals. Her kitchen team has prepared 4,000 meals since late March, ranging from Malaysian curries to vegan-friendly Persian banquets. This month, the enterprise goes national for the first time with All Together Now, a digital format of the Free to Feed model with cooking videos, an online community and a delivery of recipes and ingredients to your door.

When things return to something more like normal, particularly for hospitality, Bolotin is hoping that Free to Feed participants find employment in some of Melbourne’s leading kitchens and restaurant groups.

“People seeking asylum in our program have the most incredible attitudes to learning,” she says. “They show up every day, with the best attitudes. If we can get the right partnerships, I think the industry will be all the better for it.”

For now, despite the disruptions to Free to Feed’s core business of events, Bolotin stays focused by taking pointers from the people she’s devoted her career to.

“The resilience in the people that we work with, who have fled huge hardship and persecution and kept their families safe, keeps me motivated.”

The Hostplus Trailblazer Award is given to someone under the age of 40 who has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of the Victorian food and drink industry. Congratulations to Loretta from everyone at Melbourne Food & Wine Festival and Hostplus.

Photography and video: Kate Shanasy.