Refugee Cooks Take Over European Kitchen

Refugees are taking over restaurant kitchens in 13 European cities during the  Refugee Food Festival, which coincides with World Refugee Day on June 20.

For two weeks, restaurant kitchens will occupied by refugee chefs from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and others.

One popular and award-winning eatery in the center of the Belgian capital, Brussels, has been taken over by Syrian cook Abdell Baset.

On his first day in the restaurant’s kitchen, he is preparing a typical Syrian dish, and one of his favorites.

“It’s called Molokia. It’s with vegetables and coriander and garlic. And at the end, we put chicken on it, and we serve it with rice,” he said.

Customer Jolien Potemans came to eat especially because of the food festival.

“I think the perception of refugees in Europe is very bad at the moment, and also in Belgium,” she said. “And I think that’s why it’s very important to support events like these where refugees actually prepare meals, and this is my way to show my support to them.”

Baset left war-torn Syria in 2015. He had worked most of his life in the food industry. But when he heard that soon he would be conscripted for the Syrian army, he decided to flee. Just like millions of other Syrians, he fled to Europe in search of safety.

Baset says his passion for cooking will help him build a new life in Europe, as it brings people together.

“When it comes to cooking like now when I was cooking and I went to the people they were eating,” he said. “And I ask them, and they ask me about my life, how it was in Syria. So I think it’s a very nice opportunity to come together and share our points of views.”

Yannick Van Aeken, a well-known Belgian chef and owner of the restaurant where Abdel Baset is cooking today, believes the influences of foreign cooks can only improve the already high standards of the Belgian restaurant scene.

“It’s always nice to see different influences, and ingredients and the way they’re cooking from different parts of the world,” he said. “And then everybody can learn a little bit more about their traditions, and their culture of the countries that they come from.”

The food festival started as a citizens’ initiative in Paris and is backed by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Marine Mandrila, one of the co-founders from the Paris food festival in 2016, wanted the project to change the negative perception of refugees.

“We saw we had to do something about all the negative images that are conveyed with the arrival of refugees,” Mandrila said. “And we thought that sometimes we forget that they are humans like all of us with skills and talents and a huge cultural background. And we believe food is an amazing tool to connect people.”

The hope is that the refugee cooks will find employment in the food industry, while also increasing cultural exchanges.

Eighty refugee chefs in 13 European cities are cooking in 84 kitchens until the end of this month. Next year, the Refugee Food Festival is expected to expand to include Canada and the United States.