Greg lives in a modest apartment on the 20th floor of one of the apartment blocks popping up in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. We watch the sun set over the Inner West. He shows off the 25m pool. It is easy to imagine him as the attractive, vibrant MD of a listed property company that he once was. It is harder to imagine him as Inmate number: 378121. As General Manager of Our Big Kitchen, he is clear about both. ‘The moment I entered jail I knew I was going to have to reskill. I would not be able to, nor want to, jump back into the corporate world. I thought about what really interested me and did a BA in human studies majoring in community development and indigenous studies. I wanted to use my commercial skills for social benefit. Even with personal wealth, I had always had Labour blood in my veins. All of that directed me to where I am now.’
When I first visited Our Big Kitchen (OBK), an industrial kitchen located in Bondi, Sydney, I was met with a warm welcome and a general sense of disarray. OBK, a kosher and halal certified, HACCP-approved industrial kitchen, was established in 2007, the brainchild of Rabbi Dovid Slavin and his wife Laya. They recognised the value of a kitchen that would provide meals for those who could not cook themselves due to illness, poverty or disability, while bringing together people through the cooking process. Core to the running of the kitchen, is its program with corrective services that enables inmates on work release to help out. One such inmate was Greg Fisher.
If you lived in Sydney in 2000, you know all about Greg – the property and media tycoon, whose business, the Satellite Group, collapsed in 2000 costing investors $25 million. You read about his subsequent illness and reported ‘moral collapse’, which culminated in a seven year and eight month sentence for drug dealing. You noticed how once a key gay personality in the Sydney scene, his angular face disappeared from the papers’ social columns overnight.
You may have suggested to Greg that he should still be in jail for the pivotal role he played in a drug ring. Or you may have forgiven him as someone who has paid the price for his crimes. Or as he acknowledges, you may be polite to his face but disdainful in your home. To Greg it does not matter. While there have been moments of shame and embarrassment, overall he says, ‘I have been overwhelmed and humbled by people’s capacity to forgive. Working at OBK was enormously confronting because I saw people from my community every day; but most were incredibly forgiving and that helped my reintegration.’
When I first met Greg in 2011, he arrived on a train from jail via Bondi Junction and left by 6pm sharp every day. He was not allowed to use the phone or internet. He was unsure what freedom would feel like. He was anxious about whether his relationship from before he went into jail would survive his release. Today he sits across from me in faded denims and a pristine navy shirt, offsetting his olive skin and blue eyes. He is comfortable and relaxed, delighting in his coffee and cinnamon bun. He tells me the story.
‘In 2011, my father inquired whether I could do work release at OBK. They immediately said yes and I began mopping floors and chopping vegetables. One day, I offered to do the opening for a corporate group that had come to OBK…and I have been doing them ever since. They saw the value that my experience could bring to the kitchen. When the incumbent decided to leave, I approached the Board to stay beyond my jail term. I wanted to see the job through with no shackles.’
There is seldom one person to whom any success can be attributed. When it comes to transforming OBK from a warm but slightly disheveled centre of activity to an increasingly professionally run agency of change, Greg has to be given credit. He would be the first to acknowledge the contribution of his predecessors as well as all the current staff, formal and voluntary. But he knows that his commercial and corporate experience is adding value. He has introduced new processes and systems, more detailed financial reporting and a clarity of role and structure, all of which are improving efficiency, effectiveness and fundraising. ‘I’ve never believed not-for-profit needs to mean not for revenue,’ he says.
There are parts of each of us that remain constant whatever the circumstances. Despite a business collapse and time in jail, Greg’s entrepreneurial capacity has not diminished. ‘I’m a big dreamer and love turning the dream into reality. I want us to create a financially sustainable kitchen while maintaining the community feel and spirit of generosity which has been core to its success.’ But learnings have not been lost along the way. Greg acknowledges that early on in his property career he was too aggressive and grew too fast. His focus for OBK is to develop a scalable and sustainable model for interagency co-operation. He has cemented relationships with agencies including Lou’s Place, Jewish Care, Asylum Seekers Centre and Amnesty International. These are expanding the reach of the kitchen. In 2013 OBK prepared 50 000 portions of food which were distributed to individuals, hospitals, prisons and schools. It provided meals for the Australian national relief services during bushfires and floods. Over 70 schools and 4000 students visited OBK to prepare meals; and 15 000 volunteer hours were directed towards the kitchen’s programs, which include mother’s groups, educational activities, corporate team-builds, birthday parties and community cooking days.
As General Manager of OBK, one of Greg’s responsibilities is to develop new products. During a recent work trip overseas, he was inspired by a restaurant run by blind people. He wants to introduce a similar experience into OBK where visitors are guided by blind people through kitchen tasks in a blacked-out kitchen and then sit down to the meal. ‘It’s about teaching kids how to enter into another’s world; how to learn that your own way of living is not the only way.’ Empathy seems to be at the heart of Greg’s tale. Few of us live in as many different worlds as Greg has. Few of us have to confront our better and worse selves to the same degree. And few of us have to find the courage, determination and resilience that Greg has, to start every part of our lives again. ‘I thank the kitchen every day for giving me a second chance; and I hope we can do that for so many others.’
It is easy to see Greg’s journey as a story of redemption. He has a family that is proud of the way he has rehabilitated himself; he is in a long-term, supportive relationship with his partner, Luke; he has forged a close bond with his daughter; and he comes to work excited every day. How many of us have as much professional and personal contentment, drive and happiness as Greg Fisher has these days?
But things are never as simple as they seem. Greg does not hide that there were desperate times in jail. While he recognises that being in jail turned around his life – ‘it becomes very clear what your choices are’ – a sharp comment or the reminder of abuse sends shivers down his spine. ‘Rabbi Slavin explained to me that my time in prison is like looking in a rear view mirror. The more I do and the further away I go, the smaller it will become in the context of my life.’ As Greg continues to tell me of his plans for OBK, his next work trip overseas and the impending capital raise for OBK, his time in jail seems to be fading fast.