Refugee food festival builds gastronomic bridges

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© Agence &Sens | Georgian refugee Magda Gegenava and Stéphane Jégo of L'ami Jean restaurant in Paris will be offering a French-Georgian meal on June 19 as part of the Refugee Food Festival.

Two years after the idea of showcasing the diverse culinary heritages of the city's refugees was born, Paris is hosting a Refugee Food Festival, which has now spread to 15 cities across the globe.

From June 16 to 24, more than a dozen Parisian restaurants will entrust their kitchens to refugee chefs who have landed in the French capital as a result of global turmoil.

The Refugee Food Festival is the brainchild of Marine Mandrila and Louis Martin, founders of Food Sweet Food– an NGO that aims to connect people through food – and is supported by the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

After traveling – and feasting – across 18 countries, Mandrila and Martin returned to their native France during the thick of the migrant crisis, which has seen hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants risk perilous journeys to make it to Europe. The couple decided to create a platform where food could bring people together as well as provide jobs for refugees in a city that has plenty of restaurant job vacancies.

Born in 2016, the itinerant festival has since expanded to incorporate 100 restaurants and 100 chefs across 15 cities.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Stéphane Jégo, mentor and chef at L'Ami Jean restaurant in Paris, and Magda Gegenava, a Georgian refugee who is one of the eatery’s guest chefs for the Refugee Food Festival. On June 19, the pair will be offering a French-Georgian fusion gourmet experience for lunch and dinner (both events are already fully booked).

F24: What does the Refugee Food Festival represent for you?

Magda Gegenava: In Georgia, I ran a dental office, so I'm not a chef by training. The festival is a chance to work in a real restaurant, to observe, get to know the French clientele. Even if I’m offering Georgian cuisine, it’s very important that I adapt to France especially since here, you’re always asked about your experience [in the industry].

Stéphane Jégo: The festival is a grounding, solid experience for Magda. This is the third year I’ve participated in the Refugee Food Festival. The kitchen is a great way to get people out of complicated situations. The goal is not to give Magda a bottle of water when she is thirsty, but to provide her with a shovel with which she can dig her own well.

F24: What has the festival changed in your life?

S.J.: Before, I slept three hours a night, now I sleep an hour-and-a-half!

M.G.: When I arrived in France five years ago, I did not know anyone. The Refugee Food Festival allowed me to meet French people, to open myself up to other circles.

S.J.: The refugee's reflex is to turn to his or her community, because he or she knows nothing and nobody. We want them to resist this temptation and encourage refugees to be more open, to integrate themselves through gastronomy. Without this opportunity, Magda would risk staying within her community, isolating herself. The festival aspires to place refugees who have a professional project, by giving them access to gastronomic codes, small producers and artisans. So when Magda opens her restaurant, she will not be seen as a Georgian who has opened a Georgian restaurant, but as someone involved in gastronomy, with French ways adapted for a Georgian cuisine. She will not be viewed as a poor refugee opening a poor restaurant.

F24: And in your kitchen?

M.G.: The presentation of the dishes and the orchestration! In France, the visual element is very important while in Georgia, we put all the dishes on a large table from the beginning to the end of the meal and everyone takes what he wants. There’s not a great deal of attention given to decoration. Here, we have adapted and worked on dishes. For example, I make khinkalis ["absolute must-have raviolis," Jégo exclaims] and usually, we put 10 or 15 on the plate. But here, we place five that have been carefully worked on. The visual changes everything. It's the gourmet touch!

S.J.: What is interesting in this exchange is offering traditional cuisine with real tastes. I do not want Magda to cook French or Franco-Georgian or Georgian cuisine. I want Magda to offer her tastes, her ways, her own flavours and it's the orchestration of the dishes that will make all the difference. I've been enriched by all these encounters. Before, I used spices sparingly. Now, I have become sharper, I dig a little more. In the kitchen, I have no barriers, no ego. But even if I am open to everything, sometimes I can miss something or not have the presence of mind to use a particular product. This year, I was able to work with pomegranate, walnuts and [Georgian] spices.

F24: What did you like in each other's cooking style?

M.G.: Before arriving in France, I did not know French cuisine. In Georgia, there are Italian and Chinese restaurants, but not French. In France, I discovered new potatoes and I love them! Tasting Stéphane's cooking was a shock. It was totally different from anything I had ever tasted. I do not like seafood, but when he prepares it, it's magnificent. A feast! Because he’s curious, he experiments with different types of cooking: grilled, smoked…He cooks like us because we really love salty and smoked tastes and he loves our spices. I think that in another life Stéphane was Georgian!

S.J.: Before Magda, I did not know Georgian cuisine at all. Everything is different. Georgian cuisine has its identity, its products. Now, I really like chakapuli, a veal dish that Magda makes. It’s very interesting, with this acidity, this plum that gives the dish some contrast. And I really like her beetroot seasoning. It's because she seasons it with spices that we don't know that are very interesting.

F24: This is the third year of the Refugee Food Festival, which has expanded across the world. How do you explain such success?

S.J.: During the first edition, I worked with [Syrian chef] Mohammed Elkhaldy and from the beginning we were on equal footing. I do not speak English or Arabic, but we talked about cooking. We communicated in another language: gastronomy. There was no barrier, nothing that could stop us from moving forward. Simplicity and equality are the ingredients that I think make the festival work. The kitchen is universal and the best bridge to reach across to each other. If the world opted for simplicity instead of political complexity, things would be better.

This article is only publisher's viewpoint.

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