Lyon restaurant serves up Syrian menu to launch Refugee Food Festival

After last year's success, the festival goes international with events in 13 European cities, starting in the capital of French gastronomy.

Launch of the Refugee Food Festival in Lyon

Syrian refugee chef Mohammad Elkhaldy (left) and French restaurant owner Hubert Vergoin prepare for the opening event of the Refugee Food Festival on Thursday at Le Substrat restaurant in Lyon, France.   © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

LYON, France – Acclaimed French chef Hubert Vergoin opened the kitchen of his upmarket Lyon restaurant Le Substrat on Thursday to Syrian cook Mohammad Elkhaldy, launching the second Refugee Food Festival in France’s gastronomic capital.

After last year’s successes in Paris and Strasbourg, the 2017 festival is going international, with events in 13 European cities in six countries between 15 and 30 June.

The Lyon venue is the first of 84 restaurants where refugee chefs from countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Somalia, Syria and Ukraine will tempt European diners with the colours and flavours of dishes from their home countries.

The French-born initiative started last year as a partnership between the NGO Food Sweet Food and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, with the support of partners, citizens, local authorities, restaurants and private businesses.

“We still have a lot to learn from each other and we will take the time to do so."

The 2017 festival will take place in Paris, Brussels, Madrid, Athens, Amsterdam, Florence, Rome, Milan, Bari, Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon and Lille as part of the events marking World Refugee Day on June 20.

In June last year, more than 1,000 people enjoyed food prepared by refugee chefs from India, Iran, Ivory Coast, Russia, Sri Lanka and Syria in 11 Paris restaurants, which opened their kitchens and changed their menus for the occasion.

European restaurants are opening their kitchens to refugee chefs.

In December, it moved to the eastern French city of Strasbourg, where six restaurants served Afghan, Syrian and Tibetan dishes and some newly-invented recipes.

Elkhaldy, who was a professional chef and restaurateur in Damascus, was one of the stars of last year’s festival, when he cooked with French chef Stéphane Jégo at the Left Bank restaurant l’Ami Jean.

“Refugees will have the opportunity to showcase their skills and promote their food traditions."

Since he moved to France, he has catered for several high-profile events, including a catwalk show for the Kenzo fashion house and a reception at Paris City hall attended by the mayor, Anne Hidalgo.

He and head chef Vergoin met in the Substrat kitchen in Lyon a day earlier to swap stories about their cooking experiences and discuss preparations for Thursday’s six-course dinner, which will kick off the two-week festival.

The pair will be serving a six-course menu including quail, duck hearts, veal, spicy vegetables, baklava and Damascus-style ice cream.

"Yesterday, we took the time to sit together and learn a bit more from each other,” Vergoin told UNHCR. “We still have a lot to learn from each other and we will take the time to do so after the service tonight."

Marine Mandrila, one of the founders of the festival, said last year’s event had been a great success, with people from all over the world wanting to replicate it.

“Its expansion to several European cities stems from the desire of many citizens across Europe to engage with and welcome refugees in their own country,” she said. “Refugees will have the opportunity to showcase their skills and promote their food traditions and ordinary people will discover a new culture through its cuisine.”

Vincent Cochetel, director of UNHCR’s Europe Bureau, described the festival as a positive cultural experience based on the “simple joy” of preparing a meal and enjoying good food.

“It also helps to generate awareness about refugees and creates opportunities for refugee chefs, promoting their talents and integration,” he said.

The event has boosted refugees’ culinary careers in France by their cooking skills, and opened doors for all the participating refugee chefs.