Spotlight on France

Refugee Chefs show off their skills in Paris

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France is known the world over for its gastronomy. And its food culture has been enriched through waves of immigration. And yet migrants don’t always get a good press. The Refugee Food Festival, held recently in Paris and 13 other major European cities, invited refugee chefs to cook in restaurants so they could show off their skills and encourage diners to see them differently.

Syrian refugee chef Mohammad El Khaldy preparing food at Paris City Hall on June 20th 2016 as part of the Refugee Food Festival
Syrian refugee chef Mohammad El Khaldy preparing food at Paris City Hall on June 20th 2016 as part of the Refugee Food Festival ©UNCHR/Benjamin Loyseau

Ivorian chef Afoussatou Soro prepares brunch in the steamy kitchens of La Traversée restaurant: chicken marinated in garlic, vinegar and soya sauce served with aubergine caviar. She describes her cooking as unpretentious but inventive.

"I use salt, little pepper, perhaps cumin, it’s not complicated," she told RFI. "But it’s full of flavour. I do an Ivorian taboulleh made from cassava couscous and I add sesame oil, it’s very good."

She's sharing the kitchen with head chef Charles Neyers.

"As a chef, it’s very stimulating to discover products we’re not used to working with," says Neyers. "Like plantain bananas and cassava couscous." Soro has also introduced him to hibiscus flowers, used to make the syrup known as "bissap", common in West Africa. "I'll carry on using it. It complements the dishes we make here. Just yesterday, we marinated raw skipjack tuna in hibiscus syrup."

Neyers met Soro just two weeks before they joined forces for the festival in June, but he's given her free reign to express herself. "Today I'm her commis chef," he laughs.

Soro fled the north of Cote d'Ivoire after the political crisis in 2002. Memories of food link her to happier times from her childhood.

"When I was little I ate boiled yam with Shea oil prepared by my grandmother. I inherited a love of traditional cuisine from her."

Afoussatou Soro preparing an Ivorian brunch at La Traversée in Paris
Afoussatou Soro preparing an Ivorian brunch at La Traversée in Paris Vassili Feodoroff

The idea for the Refugee Food Festival comes from a French nonprofit called Food Sweet Food, partnered with UNHCR. At a time when Paris is struggling to accommodate growing numbers of migrants and recently moved some two and a half thousand from squalid camps to other towns in France, the festival hopes to counter some of the prejudices circulating about asylum seekers.

"It’s nice to see both sides coming together to share something," says Arounas, a customer tucking into Soro's brunch. "Refugees shouldn’t always be on the receiving end, they should give something back."

"It helps us to go beyond the cliché of these makeshift refugee camps in Paris," his partner Pauline continues. "It’s great they can show off their skills. That is the idea, after all."

Soro acknowledges this shared experience has boosted her confidence.

"It's not easy being a refugee, learning to fit in,” she says. “This festival is like manna from heaven as we say in Cote d'Ivoire. It's made me feel more confident about the skills I have."

Syrian chef Mohammad El Khaldy cooking at the Refugee Food Festival 2017
Syrian chef Mohammad El Khaldy cooking at the Refugee Food Festival 2017 ©UNHCR/Food Sweet Food

Mohammad El Khaldy has been working in the restaurant business for more than 20 years. The Damascus-born chef ran his own restaurants back home, worked as a food designer and featured on the popular Top Chef TV show. He shouldn't be in need of a confidence boost. But when he left everything behind in 2012, and made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean with his wife and three children to find safety in Europe, he had to start from scratch.

"Coming here, nobody heard of chef El Khaldy, nobody know his work. I need to prove that, to work, beginning from the first small step," he tells RFI in a café in Paris after the event.

While most Syrians fleeing to Europe have claimed asylum in Germany, El Khaldy was drawn to France.

"It’s the mother of all cuisines," he says. "Paris means gastronomy, the art of food, good taste, real food...  that’s why we’re coming to Paris. I’m happy and proud of what I do in one year."

El Khaldy took part in the first edition of the Refugee Food Festival in 2016, cooking alongside Stephane Jégo at L'Ami Jean restaurant, an experience he repeated this year. He's also cooked for Kenzo during Paris Fashion Week and  in other events organised by Food Sweet Food.

"When I met the Refugee Food festival, that changed for me 360°, [helped me] to trust myself again."

Working with Stephane Jégo, El Khaldy's been able to explore and develop gastronomic Syrian food: dishes like beef cream, vegetarian kibbeh served with spinach and pomegranate seed, quail with Syrian roasted wheat known as freekeh, lamb tartare with caramelized eel, tuna cream with pickled carrots and estragon sauce, beef cream ...

Syria is "the mother of Arab cuisine," says El Khaldy. "We have 50 kinds of kibbeh"

And just like in France, it has a rich gastronomic culture with strong regional specialties from Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.

“We have seasonal cuisine, not political cuisine,” he continues. And while he's proud to come from Damascus, as a chef he represents all of Syria.

“We need to pick up the flag and send this message to all the world … we have amazing culture and food."

His dream is to open a gastronomic Syrian restaurant here in France, no matter how long it takes.

Meanwhile he takes some satisfaction from working alongside people who, like him, love food.

"I remember this feeling when my mother [was] cooking: it means all the family is coming. That’s why I love food because I think even now when I make food I will find my family. Every time I enter the kitchen I remember my Syria, my restaurant, my friends and all my family."


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