A Refugee Food Festival showcasing the cooking talents of refugee chefs from five different countries has won the hearts of Geneva residents by connecting through the food of their national cuisines.
Over the past week, local chefs have turned their kitchens over to their refugee counterparts from Syria, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Tibet and Nigeria.
Nadeem Khadem al-Jamie smiles broadly as clients at this high-end restaurant applaud his culinary skills. Nadeem, a 29-year-old Syrian refugee, says cooking is his passion. An interpreter explains that he learned how to cook from his uncle and worked in his family restaurant in Damascus before he was forced to leave the country in 2015.
“And, he went to Turkey and from Turkey to Greece and then he walked all the way to Germany and then to the Swiss border,” the interpreter said.
Nadeem’s wife and two daughters eventually joined him through a family reunification program. He hopes this spot as guest chef will land him a job.
Force behind the festival
Louis Martin, the co-founder of Food Sweet Food, a nongovernmental organization that initiated the Refugee Food Festival in 2016 in partnership with the U.N. refugee agency, says the project has two main objectives.
“The first one was to change the way we look at refugees by valorizing talents and skills, culinary skills,” he said, “and the second was to create a professional accelerator for the refugee chefs participating … and we asked to every restaurant … to recommend the chef to his network and then create professional opportunities for him.”
Martin says he was struck by the negative image conveyed by the arrival of thousands of desperate refugees to Europe in the summer of 2015. That, he says, inspired him and his Food Sweet Food partner, Marine Mandrila to create the festival.
“So, we thought, how can we leverage food, how can we leverage all that we have learned through our travels and food documentaries … to create a better understanding between citizens and refugees,” Martin said.
U.N. gets involved
Martin and Mandrila brought their idea to the United Nations refugee agency in Paris. Celine Schmitt, UNHCR senior public information officer, tells VOA she was immediately captivated.
“Food is a great way to create connections,” she said. “It is also a great way to change the way people see refugees because if someone eats well, he will maybe have another idea, perspective afterwards. But, also, it is a way to integrate refugees.”
The festival caters to different tastes and different pocketbooks. Nadeem’s five-course Syrian menu is served in an elegant dining room in one of Geneva’s luxury hotels for $90. People with less money to spare can enjoy delicious Nigerian or Ethiopian food at two lakeside refreshment bars for about $20.
Schmitt says one of the great aspects of the festival is the collaboration between the restaurant’s usual chef and the refugee chef.
“The chefs who have invited the refugee chefs,” she said, “they have all told us that they want to start again and that they learned something. And, they were so happy to be able to learn from another chef because food has always been inspired by different cultures and different spices, tastes.”
When the applause dies down, Nadeem goes back to the hotel’s spotless kitchen.There he gets together with restaurant chef, Michael Coquelle. He happily looks on while Nadeem demonstrates how to make a Baba ghanouge, an eggplant puree with sesame cream, which is out of this world.