This French Organization Is Helping Refugees Through Food

French chef Stéphane Jego (left) and Syrian refugee chef Mohammad El Khaldy.

© AFP/Getty Images

By Gillie Houston Posted July 07, 2016

Refugee chefs are collaborating with Paris restaurants.

At a moment when Europe's refugee crisis stands as one of the most controversial subjects across the continent, one French organization is on a mission promote unity, acceptance and the diverse cuisines of the people who've been forced to flee war-torn regions.

Mohammad El Khaldy, a Syrian chef who worked as a cook for 20 years in Damascus, fled his home country to avoid a series of bombings. Now, El Khaldy has teamed up to cook with Stephane Jego, chef and owner of L'Ami Jean, a traditional French bistro serving up Basque cuisine—one of eight collaborations between restaurants and refugees being highlighted at the world's first "Refugee Food Festival" in Paris. "We are making a taste that is from Syria, but in the French style," Khaldy tells The New York Times.

A French organization called Les Cuistots Migrateurs—or, The Migratory Cooks—worked hand-in-hand with the festival to curate a food program that would not only please palates, but also spread an important message about acceptance and collaboration.

Les Cuistots Migrateurs was started by two entrepreneurs, Louis Jacquot and Sebastien Prunier, as an attempt to change Parisians' views of immigrants through food. The organization hopes to highlight that there are many ways in which migrants can positively affect France's culture.

Though neither Jacquot or Prunier had a background in cooking or food prior to founding the organization, they arrived at the concept because they "wanted to do something closer to the heart." The pair sought chefs among the thousands of registered refugees and presented them with opportunities to cook. Since February, the group has put on 20 events, from lunches to buffets, to highlight the cooks' home cuisines, which include Indian, Ethiopian, Sri Lankan, Syrian, Chechen and Iranian. For the festival, these chefs will cook in the kitchens of nine Paris venues.

Les Cuistots Migrateurs operates out of a government-subsidized shared kitchen space aimed to support early French culinary companies. There, the refugee cooks, including El Khaldy, gather to prep for the group's catering gigs and events. During the catered events, the refugee chefs are on hand when the food is served, so that they are able to interact with diners and explain dishes that might seem unfamiliar. "It's important to show that this comes from a person and it was a long road for him to bring it here: that the cuisine comes from a place and a tradition," Prunier says.

The organization hopes that their small project will make an impact on the large-scale issue of hatred towards refugees in France. As Prunier says, "Immigrants here are seen in a negative light, as pulling the country down, as having nothing to offer, but in fact they offer a chance to exchange cultures, to bring something positive."

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