Refugee Chef: food as a medium for social integration

Migration and displacement - be it voluntary or forced, out of economic necessity, for political reasons or sheer fear for live - can affect anybody. At one point our ancestors, grandparents, parents or even ourselves were, are or will be seeking refuge in another geography that may be strange and unfamiliar.

Migrants have stories to tell, memories to share, nostalgia to cling to, fears to overcome. One of the best ways to convey our stories of migration and refuge is through our food. This belief is at the core of our Refugee Chef project, a partner venture of Kök Projekt: We want to reflect and share the stories of the artisans, the craftspeople and representatives of immigrant food cultures.

Our Vision

Refugee Chef is a social integration and business development project that uses food and stories to celebrate newcomers, to help build communities while generating income to be self-sustainable. Our goal is to support gifted cooks and chefs with migrant backgrounds to share their talents with their new communities and apply those skills effectively to build or become part of a culinary enterprise. We focus on newcomers, using pop-up dinners featuring those cooks as a way to facilitate interaction with their new neighbours and integration into their new communities, while also generation an income. Refugee. Pop-up dinners are the perfect way to give newcomer cooks an opportunity to share their cuisine and their stories.

Thinking of refugees, migrants or newcomers our first concerns are often related to what they need from their new communities: housing, services and other resources. Refugee Chef takes a different approach. We focus on what they can contribute to the society.

As people move, they need to leave behind many things. But their culinary culture and cuisine, layers of history in the form of recipes and cooking methods, can travel with them. With that comes so much potential, to celebrate and preserve well-established traditions, and to create new ones together. Refugee Chef is dedicated to highlighting that potential. By providing a platform not only to share their cuisine and cooking talents, but also their stories and their culture, we are able to move away from identifying people as refugees - which we consider a circumstance not an identity - and instead see them through their talents, professions, hobbies and more.

The approach

In Kök Projekt, we work on food-centric solutions to empower food entrepreneurship. Food is a great medium to bring people together because it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, we can all get together at the same table. We’re inspired by this. Because dining tables are our common ground, no matter what our backgrounds are. Therefore in Refugee Chef, we celebrate this idea of being together and sharing your food.

The project aims to create a social impact model that can be applied to various places, working towards connecting past, present and future. By past we understand the culinary heritage brought by newcomer chefs to our guests, giving them the opportunity to understand and experience newcomer’s culinary culture. The present comes from our venues, which reflect our main idea and the zeitgeist of the events. Lastly, the future comes from food startups; we believe that the future of food will be sustained by forward-looking food entrepreneurs.

Food entrepreneurship is not the latest trend of the decade, it’s probably one of the oldest in the world. Therefore we work to empower food entrepreneurs from all elements of the wider food system. It can be a food engineer aiming to create edible packages or a Kurdish mother baking bread. In the end there’re endless opportunities within the food world.

First events

We’ve started the Refugee Chef in Bologna, Italy where we organised our first event. The event was organised part of it.a.ca Festival of responsible tourism in Bologna. As part of the festival, we were hosted by L’Altro Spazio, a local restaurant that is known for its focus on social impact.

We decided to focus on the cuisines and aromas of the various African communities in Northern & Eastern Italy. We together with our Refugee Chefs created a menu as a celebration of their cultures, with the feel of a family dinner where everything was meant to be shared from the middle of the table. The star of the night, also one of my favourite breads of all time, was Injera. Injera is a traditional Ethiopian bread that’s made from teff flour. The flour is mixed with some water and salt then is left to ferment for around 3 days after which it is cooked on a sheet metal pan with a cover to steam it. The result is a yeasty, thin bread with a chewy texture. We invited our guest to eat with their hands and immerse themselves into touching and feeling the food as part of the sensory experience of the evening.

The next event will be held in Paris. This time we’ll be focusing more on the notion and the history of being an immigrant. We’ll be hosted by Volumes Coworking space where we will be working on creating a model for food-focused startups and entrepreneurs from their food lab.

The long term goal of our project is to building up food incubation spaces and food startup accelerators with which we can empower immigrant food entrepreneurs and support their communities. We are starting with a dinner to share tastes & aromas, moving on to sharing ideas. We want to create a support network that will have a positive socio-economic impact. The reason we want to do this is that, we believe food is the perfect way to bring us together. We should be together and listen to our stories, and break bread together.

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