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Meet the Slavins: the brains, heart and soul of Our Big Kitchen

Peter Fray
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Meet the Slavins: The brains, heart and soul of Our Big Kitchen

Published: 29 August 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

PETER FRAY spends a day inside the whirlwind of the Sydney food service that enables the more fortunate to give something back to the community.  

The voice of Bryan Ferry, he of the great suits, Jerry Hall and the floppiest of floppy hair, is bouncing off the commercial kitchen’s metal surfaces, as groups of five from e-signature pioneers DocuSign come to terms with the task at hand: make 50 meals for the needy out of an array of vegies and spices.

Do the math: that’s five x 50, 250 edible meals in about three hours. Chop, chop.

By way of inspiration, in the middle of each of the five tables sit a vegetable in a covered bowl – potatoes, cauliflower, pumpkin and so on. There’s a clipboard and a pen to capture the rest of the ingredients. The morning starts with each group discussing what they’ll make. Phones are enlisted in the search for recipes.

Love may well be Ferry’s drug, but for the assembled 25 volunteer corporate cooks the buzz is more Master Chef meets Red Shield Appeal, or, in all actuality today, the Exodus Foundation and a local woman’s shelter. 

Exodus and the shelter are this morning’s clients of Our Big Kitchen (OBK), a Sydney-based non-denominational charity that turns donated food into meals for other charities to hand out – with the help of free corporate labour.

OBK is not the frontline of the fight against poverty, homelessness and the multitude of other inequalities besieging our society. It is the engine room. Down there, demand is getting hotter, faster and more desperate by the day.

“I can tell you when interest rates go up,” says OBK’s founder Rabbi Dovid Slavin. “The next day, all the charities are calling up, ‘We need meals'.”  Adds co-founder and wife, Laya Slavin: “We need to double in size.”

The kitchen turns out between 600-1000 meals a day.  

"When interest rates go up, the next day, all the charities are calling up, ‘We need meals'."

OBK co-founder Rabbi Dovid Slovin

After DocuSign, the next team for the day is Metro Finance. Adobe, Qantas, Atlassian and JP Morgan have all been cooking here recently.

Pictures of various prime ministers – Turnbull, the one-time local member of the Bondi Junction-based kitchen, and Rudd (“Kevin O-Ate”, jokes the rabbi) – adorn the walls with many other awards and certificates of appreciation.

OBK doesn’t market or sell it services to either side of its virtuous equation. Its reach is via a reputation built over the 16 years since it started. The demand for food has never been greater, says George, who has been working at OBK for 13 years.

“Nobody in Australia should go hungry. Yet we throw away $4 billion worth of produce a year – what’s that about? Madness. We need to come up with some solution about food waste.”  

If there were another name for OBK, it would be Laya’s Kitchen because it all started when the hairdresser-cum-wig-stylist began handing out “spare” food to her clients, some of whom were undergoing chemotherapy. That was a white lie: the food wasn’t so much spare as Laya’s way of seeding happiness.

She also gave out blank books, suggesting the women could write down their favourite recipe as a way of paying it forward. Then the cooking started. “The food they were eating was being cooked by someone who had survived (cancer),” she says. “From that, it became huge.”

If there were another name for OBK, it would be Laya’s Kitchen because it all started when the wig stylist began handing out 'spare' food to her clients, some of whom were undergoing chemotherapy.

Slavin (male) realised that Slavin (female) had hit on something that could cut many ways: help people in need with free food, inspire the makers of the meals – and honour his wife. “I think he just wanted to keep me happy,” she says.

From wigs, recipes and chemo, Our Big Kitchen has grown into a B2B service for other charities and a way for more fortunate folk to give something back to the community other than money.  

“All we want to do is provide a way for people to help,” Slavin says. “It can’t be just money all the time. We all have so many more attributes than our spending power. There’s no list of donors here.”

The kitchen employees just two staff, George, a font of uncomfortable facts (“650 people are sleeping rough every night in the CBD, 110,000 in Australia …”) and Davo.

Laya Slavin and Rabbi Dovid Slavin with chef Dave Eley, known as Davo
Laya Slavin and Rabbi Dovid Slavin with chef Dave Eley, known as Davo

A chef, with that harried, sleep-deprived look of many of his trade, Davo tells me that his main job is to “make sure they (the corporate teams) don’t cook shit ... we don’t want shit going out of here.”

Later, when DocuSign totally passes the “no-shit-will-pass” test, Davo allows himself an air guitar moment to the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop. He’s one happy chef - for a cook’s minute.

Volunteers come in various forms. As the corporate teams make progress on pumpkin curry, popcorn cauliflower and a fresh pasta dish (a prospect that troubles Davo no end), four women at the opposite end of the kitchen clean, prep and bake.

They are here to meet a need, scratch an itch, perhaps fulfill a duty. Two are doing community service (one court ordered, the other out of choice), another is a medical student taken to good works and the other is on work placement.

Slavin is ringmaster, dealmaker and voice of benign authority all rolled into one.

It doesn’t matter who is who. Everyone is mucking in, workers in a benevolent machine. Except the rabbi. He is rocking back and forth, for sure, but seemingly to some ancient rhythm, out of time with Ferry or the Ramones.  

Instead, as if he were the world’s most hirsute teenager, he is gazing at his mobile phone, his long, grey beard almost tickling the screen. Is he is praying? “No, I was just checking my WhatsApp.”

Of course, he is. Because under the surface of these acts of charity a lot is going on. Slavin is ringmaster, dealmaker and voice of benign authority all rolled into one. Later, he retires to his office for more phone checking.

As recorded by an award-winning documentary by The Jewish Independent, the kitchen didn’t let the COVID pandemic beat it. But now, faced with the growing tide of economic and social ills, it is feeling the strain. Typically, Slavin’s response is move forward, not back.

The rabbi’s influence has recently extended to an OBK in Los Angeles (“enormous demand”) and there are moves afoot to expand the kitchen’s physical (make more meals) and digital capacities (feed more people). “It’s really about seeing what’s possible,” he says.

Kitchen aside, Slavin is a chaplain to the NSW ambulance service and a spiritual leader in the tradition of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose picture sits above the doorway connecting the ovens and the food prep space.

OBK is not a Jewish charity per se, but it sits squarely in the Rebbe’s passion for outreach and education.

Today, Slavin is on a different mission - to fix his IT back end. “We are trying to create the back end where the place can run on very minimum staff,” he says.

With demand growing, the kitchen’s systems are starting to creak, the lack of IT infrastructure means inventory control and customer relationship management (future workers and ambassadors) are rudimentary. Old-fashioned white boards and bits of paper do a serviceable job, but they don’t record that Cliff, one of the DocuSign pasta makers, is on his third trip to the kitchen or send out a warning the cooked-meals freezer is almost empty.

Steve, a volunteer, takes a happy snap of the DocuSign group (Peter Fray)
Steve, a volunteer, takes a happy snap of the DocuSign group (Peter Fray)

Enter Junaid. An IT solutions architect, Junaid had arrived earlier than in the morning than any of his other DocuSign colleagues. Polite as ever, Slavin nonetheless seizes on him as a Bondi seagull might a hot chip. 

He doesn’t say it, but I suspect he thinks God sent Junaid in much the same way as Deutche Bank, another recent kitchen client, deposited $14,000 in OBK’s bank account the night before. They just gave, Slavin says.  

Divine intervention or not, Junaid is up for the rabbi’s entreaties. Twenty minutes later, he and Slavin are talking to the rest of the DocuSign crowd about how the company could help with the systems upgrade, as if they had been rehearsing the spiel for weeks.

“He’s a rabbi, he knows,” says Junaid. Replies Slavin, confidently: “We are joining Junaid on his journey to help us.” Deal done.

Who knows what will happen. Will DocuSign fix the OBK’s back end – or will its staff simply keep enjoying prepping meals together? Making food is a powerful activity in and of itself. As Victoria, another convert from DocuSign, says: “It’s great to create in the moment with your colleagues.”  Adds OBK’s George: “It’s not rocket science what we do here. I don’t solve your housing. We just feed you.”

That’s true. But there is an element of skills transfer.

Davo, George and the rabbi aside, the other lead character in the kitchen is Steve, who bills himself as a life coach and has had plenty of life himself to coach (though he asked it not to be detailed).

A five-day volunteer, with the rubbery face of a seasoned street performer, Steve works with the corporate teams to keep the morning’s food prep on track. But he also provides something of an emotional coda to the team building.

What starts as chat to reinforce the purpose of the past few hours – to show a “desperate person that someone does care about them” - is turned back on the participants. Steve invites the DocuSign group to think about themselves. “What’s the story you are constantly telling yourself,” Steve asks. “Is it, ‘I am not good enough, I am not smart enough, I am not attractive enough?' Change your story. Everybody can live an outstanding life.”

It is hard to know if Steve’s homily is appreciated or not. Fortunately, perhaps, the last word belongs to Davo, who picks the “boys with the pasta dish” as the morning’s winner and is the cue to group pics and smiles. 

As DocuSign shoots off, a small group of people arrives and wanders around the kitchen, peering at the paper calendar of who is up next and what’s cooking. There is, frankly, not that much to see.

Who are they, I ask. “They’re on a tour, they’re tourists,” the rabbi replies. Apparently, Air B‘n’B Experiences and AAT Kings both send groups the kitchen’s way. Perhaps one of them will be enlisted as an IT systems expert. Junaid better watch out.

Photo: Our Big Kitchen founders Rabbi Dovid and Layla Slavin (Giselle Haber)

All photos by Giselle Haber unless otherwise credited

About the author

Peter Fray

Peter Fray is a former editor-in-chief of the SMH, former editor of The Canberra Times and the Sunday Age, former deputy editor of the Australian, and former editor of Crikey.com.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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