Geneva diners discover new flavours and cultures at pop-up restaurant

Project introduces residents to different culinary traditions of refugees as a way of launching cross-cultural dialogue and understanding.

Afghan asylum-seeker Islam shares a taste of home.
© UNHCR/Marjanna Bergman

In a dimly lit Geneva courtyard, an inviting aroma greets diners seeking a new culinary experience – a pop-up restaurant bringing together refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, expatriates and Swiss residents.


Tonight is Syrian night and chef Aziz, 29, is hard at work putting the finishing touches to dishes from back home in Damascus. Lending a hand is Aziz’s friend Fadi, 29, originally from Aleppo. Aziz proudly presents the dishes to the enthusiastic clientele.

“This food sends me right back to Damascus, sharing huge bowls of food surrounded by family,” he says. “Baked chicken with lots of garlic and lemon."

The diverse crowd has gathered in a communal space behind the city’s train station to share tastes and memories of Syria. They are looking forward to discovering different culinary traditions and coming together as a community, with food and culture the unifying factor.

“This food sends me right back to Damascus."

Fadi is in charge of the dessert, a sweet honey-infused pastry called baklava.

His longing for Syrian desserts and other tastes of home prompted him to learn how to make them via the Internet. “Let me know what you think,” he says with pride, as he serves the baklava to eager customers.

“I actually didn’t know how to make this before I came to Switzerland,” he confesses. “I looked it up on YouTube!”

The event is organized by Cuisine Lab, the brainchild of entrepreneur Dan Stein, 43.

Dan, an American who lives in Geneva, was inspired to set up the venture after he volunteered for a similar venture with friends last year in Athens. Touched by this first-hand experience of the refugee crisis, he believed the city lacked opportunities for cross-cultural understanding and dialogue between the newcomers and the local population.

Syrian refugees shares a taste of home with help from Cuisine Lab

A chef puts the final touches to the baklava while participants serve themselves.  © UNHCR/Vi Tran

Dan and some friends decided that a kitchen project was just what Geneva needed. Having already been involved in many innovative initiatives, he calls Cuisine Lab his “labour of love”.

“The words ‘company’ and ‘companion’ come from the Latin word ‘companio’, the one you share your bread with," he says.

“The act of sharing food, or bread, has a long history of creating connections when people don’t necessarily share language or culture. By cooking together, and by sharing food, we take a first step in trying to find that common connection.”

Cuisine Lab organizes a variety of events: social cooking evenings, where a theme is chosen and people bring ingredients and cook together, pop-up kitchens where refugees, asylum seekers and amateur cooks prepare their ethnic dishes and share it with the community, and cooking workshops where people are given the opportunity to learn from, and cook with, the chefs in the community.

"The act of sharing food, or bread, has a long history of creating connections."

In the kitchen, Afghan asylum-seeker Islam, 31, has joined the Syrian chefs and is observing and helping out. In a few weeks, it will be his turn to take charge of the space for Afghan night. He shows a photo on his phone of himself cooking next to the Afghan flag at a university event in Geneva.

“Cooking is my passion in life,” he says.

Islam is living with other asylum seekers in an underground Swiss civil defence shelter near Geneva. The conditions are sometimes difficult; he is not able to cook for himself, has to sleep with the lights on and must endure the noisy environment. Still, Islam is optimistic about the future. “I want to one day open my own restaurant,” he says.

While he waits for a decision on his asylum application, Islam is happy to have found a community where he can share his passion for cooking.