“Food is one of the very few things that unifies all of us around the world,” said Martin. “It’s something we all do every day, and at the same time it says something of who we are, what is our heritage, where do we come from, our cultural background from generation to generation.”
Martin and Mandrila started with a simple idea: Restaurants would open their kitchens to chefs escaping countries such as Syria. By expressing their culture through the menus they created, the chefs would remind people that Syria was “not only a country at war, but also a country with its own history.”
There were 11 restaurants that first year, all of them in Paris -- trendy gastropubs alongside easy-going neighborhood faves. Each time a chef created a menu from their home country, the restaurant hosting them was fully booked within hours. After the success of the first year, so many strangers from other countries were reaching out, asking about bringing the festival to cities all over the world, that the founders decided to create a toolkit detailing all the logistics involved in organizing the festival -- how they selected the restaurants, how they worked with suppliers, how they rolled out the menus. By 2017, the Refugee Food Festival had 20 volunteers from 11 different cities across Europe -- the event eventually partnered with the Parisian arm of the UNHCR, the United Nations program for protecting and advocating for refugees.
By 2018, the festival expanded to the US and South Africa. It will hit 15 cities this year, on or around June 20 -- World Refugee Day -- and has already been named Event of the Year at the 2019 World Restaurant Awards. Since its inception, more than 200 restaurants have participated, hosting more than 150 refugee chefs.
The festival has also proved, unexpectedly, to be a job accelerator. A number of refugee chefs have been hired by the restaurants that hosted them, and some like La Résidence serve as incubators for refugee chefs. Two of the chefs -- Magda Gegenava from Georgia and Nabil Attar from Syria -- have been able to open their own restaurants in Paris.
The festival will be held in two US cities this year: New York City and San Francisco. In NYC, you’ll find Chef Shanti cooking Sri Lankan cuisine at abcV on June 13; Chef Diaa cooking Syrian cuisine at Porsena on June 18; Chef Oula cooking Iranian cuisine at Il Buco on June 20; and Chef Bashir cooking Afghan cuisine at Lalito on June 23. In San Francisco, six restaurants will host six refugee chefs from Myanmar, Bhutan, Iraq, Senegal, and Syria. You can volunteer, and you can also simply go and eat -- bookings are made through each respective restaurant directly, and the full program for each city will be released next week. Through the toolkit and the collaboration with the UNHCR, anyone who wants to launch an edition of the Refugee Food Festival in their own city can do so.
“It’s really a citizen initiative,” Martin said. “It comes from the ground up. It’s all volunteers.”
You can request the toolkit here.
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