Refugees serve up a taste of home at food festival in France
Strasbourg restaurants open their kitchens to refugee chefs, changing perceptions one palate at a time.
Hussam Khodari, a Syrian refugee chef, cooks brunch at the Café con Leche
© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Six restaurants in Strasbourg threw open their kitchens to refugee chefs in the run-up to Christmas, allowing them to serve the dishes of their homeland and bring together different cultures through food.
The Refugee Food Festival was the initiative of Food Sweet Food, an organization that specializes in forming connections between people through culinary events, books and documentaries, and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
The goal was to change the way refugees are perceived, while allowing residents enjoying Strasbourg’s seasonal festivities to taste new flavours and discover other cuisines.
"Behind the refugee crisis are women, children and men coming to France with talents ... waiting to be uncovered."
“The Refugee Food Festival is a reminder that behind the refugee crisis are women, children and men coming to France with talents, professions and valuable skills, which are only waiting to be uncovered,” says Marine Mandrila, who co-founded Food Sweet Food with fellow Parisian Louis Martin.
Participating restaurants are serving Afghan, Syrian and Tibetan dishes and sometimes inventing new recipes.
“When I heard about the festival, it was evident for me that we had to participate. It is exactly in line with the spirit of the restaurant, openness to new cultures and culinary traditions”, says Frederic Muller, owner of the French-Vietnamese restaurant Le Mandala that is highlighting fusion cooking, combining the culinary traditions of Alsace, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
All the refugee chefs taking part are professionals in their home countries who are using their cooking skills to integrate socially and professionally in France.
“We want to use our skills, show our talents, and also learn more about French cuisine,” says Hussam Khodari, a Syrian refugee chef who is cooking a Syrian brunch at the Café con Leche. It includes moutabal (eggplant dip), falafel (chickpea patties), labneh (soft cheese), fatteh (toasted flatbread with fillings, a Syrian breakfast dish) and foul (made from fava beans).
“We want to use our skills, show our talents, and also learn more about French cuisine.”
The owner of Café con Leche, Mohammed El Ouariachi, says he and Hussam quickly found common ground. “We spoke about cuisine and food immediately.”
All the restaurants participating in the festival agree that the arrival of new people and new talent is an asset for French food culture, which has always been enriched by foreign flavours.
“The festival also seeks to give them a head start and make their access to employment easier,” says Louis Martin, co-founder of Food Sweet Food.
Restaurant owners participating in the Refugee Food Festival agree that the event and the discovery of new culinary talents could open up employment opportunities for the refugee chefs.
“The restaurant has been fully booked for two weeks,” says Frederic Muller. If the festival is a success, they are thinking of employing their guest Afghan chef Ahmadzai on a temporary basis, he adds, and possibly taking him on permanently.
The idea of the festival is based on solidarity and conviviality, as well as a love of food and a desire to bring newly-arrived culinary talent into the French food scene.
“The festival also seeks to give them a head start and make their access to employment easier.”
The festival is an important project for UNHCR. Besides its humanitarian programmes, the agency strives to help refugees restart their lives as soon as possible and map out a future for them.
Learning languages and skills, and acquiring professional qualifications is essential for their financial, social and cultural integration into host societies. Research shows that refugees contribute to the economy of a country if given the opportunity to work and integrate.
The Strasbourg Refugee Food Festival will be followed by a bigger event in June 2017 in various European cities, and a toolkit is being designed and will be available online for people wishing to organize refugee food festivals in their own cities.