How Cooking Transformed The Lives Of These Refugee Women

Food is unifying but it’s far from apolitical. What we eat, who has access to what, and who prepares it all have direct influence on what we put on our plates. The only constant is the need to eat, and the impulse to share. The power of food to unite us is central to Mazí Mas' vision. Founded by Nikandre Kopcke in 2012, the name literally means ‘with us’ in Greek: it is an invitation to come to the table and share food, and stories, from all over the world. They work with women from migrant and refugee backgrounds, harnessing their skills as home cooks and training them for careers in the kitchen, enabling them to be economically independent. With chefs from around the world, their table is vivid, overflowing with flavour and rooted in these women’s cultural histories. Eating with Mazí Mas is a journey in a very real sense, with dishes from countries as diverse as Ecuador and Costa Rica in Latin America, South Sudan and Iran.
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Ahead of the organisation's relaunch dinner on 27th June in London, we spoke to Roberta Siao, who’s been working with Niki since the beginning: initially as a chef (making the most delicious Brazilian cheese bread you’ll ever put in your mouth) before moving on to become general manager of the kitchen. The power and joy of community runs through Mazí Mas: in the relationships the chefs forge, in the impact that working has on their lives, in the food they create. This is how they use food to make a positive, tangible impact on the lives of women whom society often overlooks.
What is Mazí Mas and who do you work with?
Mazí Mas is a catering company and a roaming restaurant. We are a company employing talented women who are from migrant and refugee backgrounds, giving them the opportunities to develop their skills to work in the food industry and to apply their natural talent. They can then go on to work as chefs or open their own businesses. We don’t like to say ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’ women – we centre the women and their profession, not their situation. Instead of seeing them as women who need help, we turn it around and say, chefs, women who are talented, who happen to be from that background.
Is there a reason you work with women in particular?
Women from these backgrounds can often be very isolated – new country, new environment, and finding it difficult to find work. Working with us helps them forge their own community, while using skills they’ve already developed as caregivers. Women are generally the ones who really carry the traditions, the experience, the memories of food. As caregivers, they bring up people, and nourish them, so who better than them to cook and for us to eat from – they do generally a better job! [laughs] They bring much more meaningful context to the food – recipes that have been passed from mothers, grandmothers, aunts... and it transforms what they make. All the great chefs always mention that the food they make and the memories they carry is always from a woman – never a man. So who better to eat with than those women?
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Because these women are cooking food from their home countries, is there more significance to the dishes they prepare?
It’s about more than just the recipes. What always strikes me the most is the time women spend cooking one particular dish, working on every single process in the preparation. I believe women see the food as a holistic experience, there is a start, middle and an end. It’s almost as if they are the guardians to their families and their identity and they must take extra care to do the recipe, and its history. To give you an example, only today we finished a lentil stew with a new chef, and she added something different that we’d never seen before. She made a lentil stew and she put in some orange peel. To add the orange to the stew is a first, but to have the patience and care of buying the orange, peeling, drying, then preparing and cutting – it’s something else. These women dedicate so much to these special and complex dishes.
Mazí Mas means ‘with us’. How is community important to the project, and to these women?
It’s all about community. A new group of chefs have just met in March for the restaurant and started working together. They already feel like a family! They have their own WhatsApp group, they look after each other and they get support from one another. There’s a real sense of ‘we’re all in it together’. Some of them come from very difficult backgrounds or have very difficult lives here. They found a sense of place in their other chefs.
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This is true even after chefs leave us – they are still a part of our family but they have moved on to new jobs and to start their own businesses. The moment you show people their value and that they are talented, they begin to believe themselves and when they believe in themselves they just go. It’s natural as human beings. It’s a wonderful thing.
It’s that old cliché of giving a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish…
Exactly. We want all of these women to be considered and taken exactly as everyone else: they absolutely have the capacity and talent. They don’t need help, they just need opportunity to earn for themselves. Money is what makes thing go around here. If this is the way to belong, of course they need a way to join in and be independent.
And once you open that door...
It’s like, 'Woah – no one can stop me'. It sparks something inside. Now I can really let go and let myself flourish again. A lot of our chefs don’t speak very good English, but since working with us they’ve begun applying for jobs without fear of rejection. And they get jobs! They just have this new power, they are confident they can do it because someone has told them, ‘What you’re doing is great.’ It amazes me, they’re not even bothered that their English is not good enough. They have so much hope, so much energy, so much interest to make it work, that it passes over language barriers. When you create a sense of community and belonging, the meals we share are so much more than just food.
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