Geneva diners tempted by African menu at Refugee Food Festival

Hundreds flock to a lakeside restaurant to sample dishes served up as part of Switzerland's contribution to the Europe-wide culinary event.

Nigerian chef Timothy Desmond Eze has been in Switzerland for nearly three years.  © UNHCR/Mark Henley

GENEVA, Switzerland – Regular customers and curious newcomers were treated to classic African dishes at a Geneva lakeside restaurant last week, when Nigerian chef Timothy Desmond Eze cooked up a feast of flavours as part of Switzerland’s contribution to the 2017 Refugee Food Festival.

The Europe-wide event, organized jointly by the non-governmental organization Food Sweet Food and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, was launched earlier in the year and is designed to showcase the culinary skills of chefs who are refugees and asylum seekers.

It opened in June when 84 restaurants in 13 European cities took part over 15 days.

SEE ALSO: Refugee Food Festival has European diners asking for more​

The Bains des Pâquis restaurant was one of five taking part in Geneva.

On the menu were two classic Nigerian dishes: jollof rice with vegetables and tomato sauce with plantain and fried chicken, and coconut rice as a vegetarian option.

"Cooking is my great passion."

Eze trained as a cook in Nigeria and worked for almost three years in a hotel before he left the country. He has been in Switzerland for nearly three years.

“I am very proud for the opportunity to introduce my cuisine and my skills to the people of Geneva,” he said. “I hope that this will help me find a job and become financially independent, because cooking is my great passion. My mother taught me all about it.”

  • Eze (right) presents jollof rice with fried plantain, alongside head chef Adrian.
    Eze (right) presents jollof rice with fried plantain, alongside head chef Adrian. © UNHCR/Mark Henley
  • Diners enjoy lunch at the restaurant on Lake Geneva.
    Diners enjoy lunch at the restaurant on Lake Geneva. © UNHCR/Mark Henley
  • The Bains des Pâquis restaurant was one of five taking part in Geneva.
    The Bains des Pâquis restaurant was one of five taking part in Geneva. © UNHCR/Mark Henley
  • Nigerian chef Eze (right) cooks up a feast of flavours.
    Nigerian chef Eze (right) cooks up a feast of flavours. © UNHCR/Mark Henley
  • Eze (right) with head chef Adrian (left) and kitchen assistant Mejer.
    Eze (right) with head chef Adrian (left) and kitchen assistant Mejer. © UNHCR/Mark Henley
  • Diners lunch at La Buvette des Bains restaurant on Lake Geneva.
    Diners lunch at La Buvette des Bains restaurant on Lake Geneva. © UNHCR/Mark Henley
  • Two swimmers pass by La Buvette des Bains restaurant on Lake Geneva.
    Two swimmers pass by La Buvette des Bains restaurant on Lake Geneva. © UNHCR/Mark Henley

The Bains des Pâquis, an open-air swimming pool at the edge of Lake Geneva with its own restaurant, is known as the place for multicultural socializing. It is close to some of the city’s upmarket hotels, including the Hotel d’Angleterre, which also took part in the festival with a Syrian menu.

The restaurant employs staff of 10 different nationalities. “It's simple, I'm the only Swiss,” said chef Laurent Grégoire.

“We have been working with refugees for years,” said Julien Brulhart, co-manager of the restaurant. He added: “The involvement of migrants is linked to the very idea of ​​the Bains. It’s a very mixed place.”

New arrivals usually start with cleaning or washing up and they can progress through on-the-job training, depending on their motivation and level of knowledge.

Two Kurds from Syria, Lawin and Mejer, work as kitchen assistants. A fellow Kurd, who started working there in 2009, is now one of the four main cooks.

The assistant manager, Hussein, arrived as a refugee from Iraq and now holds a Swiss passport.

“Hussein looks after the opening and closing of the bar, cashes up at the end of the day, takes care of the orders and manages the staff,” Brulhart explained. “He fills in for us when we are not there. It has been a year-and-a-half since Hussein took on the role and he has assumed more and more responsibility.”

Mejer, who has been working there for about a year, was delighted to see Eze join their team as cook for the day.

“I am happy to see other people who want to work hard and share their country's cuisine. It gives me the energy to carry on cooking too.”

On Thursday, the team served some 600 portions of jollof rice and coco rice between midday and 2 pm, under a blazing sun. “I'm very happy and still excited,” said Eze as the crowd started to dwindle. “It was a challenge and I took it up. Without too much stress despite the pace of service: it was a real team effort, I was very well supported.”

How did his dishes go down with customers? As they day ended they were already asking for more Nigerian dishes on the menu and were a little disappointed to hear that the chef was cooking for just this event.