In Paris, Where Food Is King, Refugee Chefs Show What They Have To Offer

Jul 10, 2016
Originally published on July 21, 2016 7:30 am

The kitchen is hopping and hot at L'Ami Jean restaurant in Paris, as chef Stéphane Jégo gets lunch underway. Jégo, who has been at this small Paris bistro for 14 years, is joined on this day by Mohammad El Khaldy, a chef from Damascus in Syria.

The two have teamed up as part of Refugees Food Festival, a weeklong event in June that brought together French and refugee chefs in a dozen or so of the city's restaurants for an exchange of gastronomy and culture. It is an effort to encourage diners to consider Europe's refugee crisis from a new perspective: a culinary one.

Jégo says that while he and El Khaldy don't speak the same language, they are able to communicate through food.

"Gastronomy is truly universal," says Jégo. "Today we are fusing our two cuisines. We're working with a lot of ingredients we use in France, but interpreting them with Syrian tastes. We're bringing a touch of Syrian spices and sun, and it's a wonderful experience."

El Khaldy fries kibbeh in hot oil. The croquette, which looks a lot like hush puppies, is a vegetarian version, stuffed with spinach and pomegranate seeds. It will be served with a thick lentil soup. The French also eat lentil soup, but it is much thinner. Also on the Franco-Syrian menu is quail with freekeh, a Syrian summer durum wheat that is roasted for flavor. There is also lamb tartare alongside caramelized eel.

Last year, El Khaldy, his wife and three children took a harrowing trip across the Mediterranean Sea and many countries; they finally arrived in France eight months ago. While most Syrians wanted to be in Germany, for El Khaldy, it had to be France.

"France is the mother of cuisine in the world," he says. "That's why I chose France. I need to learn more. The food culture, the gastronomic traditions. This is my passion." He wants to open his own restaurant someday, he says.

Syria, like France, is rich in culinary traditions, with diverse regional specialties. "Aleppo is perfect for grilled meats," says El Khaldy. "Damascus, perfect for sweets and main dishes. Homs is perfect for appetizers. And you know, Hama is perfect for cheese and yogurt, because of all the green grasses for grazing. We have a big food culture in Syria."

He says this joint meal is important to show that Syrian people are serious about working but they also want to enjoy life. The refugee chef experiment also features cooks from Iran, Ivory Coast and Sri Lanka. It was the idea of Food Sweet Food, an organization that encourages dialogue between cultures through home-cooked meals.

The large influx of refugees has worried many people in France and across Europe and fueled fears about terrorism. Political parties on the far right have called for borders to be closed and for refugees to be deported.

"We decided to ask Parisian restaurants to accept refugee chefs to change the view we have in France on refugees," says Marine Mandrila, the spokeswoman for Food Sweet Food. "And also to show that these people had real lives and professions before. And now we have to validate them and show they are real people, just like you and me."

Their efforts may be paying off. Diners at L'Ami Jean on this day are being brought course after course, each served with French wines.

Businessman Olivier Carot says the Syrian touch is subtle and sublime. "The spices don't hide the original taste, so it's very nice in the mouth," he says.

Carot says the meal also gets him thinking about more than food. Such events could help counter people's fears about refugees, he adds.

"This kind of action, because it's linked with food — which is one of the pillars of our culture — I think it helps to show us that we need to be more open," he says.

Carot thinks France and Europe, much like this meal, could be enriched by opening up to refugees and their diversity.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Diners in Paris are being encouraged to consider Europe's refugee crisis from a new perspective - a culinary one. Refugee chefs joined French chefs recently in about a dozen of the city's restaurants for an exchange of gastronomy and culture. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

STEPHANE JEGO: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The kitchen is hot and hopping at restaurant L'Ami Jean as Chef Stephane Jego gets lunch underway. Jego, who's been at the small Paris bistro 14 years, is joined on this day by Mohammad El Khaldy, a chef from Damascus.

JEGO: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Jego says while they don't speak the same language, they're able to communicate through food.

JEGO: (Through interpreter) Gastronomy is truly universal. We are fusing our two cuisines today. We're working with a lot of French ingredients but interpreting them with Syrian tastes. We're bringing a touch of Syrian spices and sun, and it's a wonderful exchange.

BEARDSLEY: El Khaldy arrived in France eight months ago with his wife and three children after a harrowing trip across many countries and the Mediterranean Sea. While most Syrians wanted to be in Germany, for Damascus chef El Khaldy, it had to be France.

MOHAMMAD EL KHALDY: France is the mother of cuisine of the world, you know? That's why I chose France because I need to learn more. I need to learn the culture of the France, the, you know, gastronomic food. This is my passion, you know? And some day I hope to open my restaurant here and tell the French people we are here. We have good culture. We have good food. We have good service.

BEARDSLEY: El Khaldy is boiling up kibbeh in hot oil. The pastry, which looks a lot like hush puppies, is a vegetarian version stuffed with spinach and pomegranate seeds. It will be served with a thick lentil soup. Also on the Franco-Syrian menu is quail with freekeh, a Syrian summer durum wheat that is roasted for flavor. And then there's lamb tartare alongside caramelized eel. El Khaldy says Syria, like France, has a rich gastronomic culture with diverse regional specialties.

EL KHALDY: Aleppo is perfect for the grill. Damascus, perfect for the sweet and the main dish. Hummus is perfect for the mazza, you know, appetizers, you know? Hama is perfect for the cheese. That's why we have a big culture of the food.

BEARDSLEY: El Khaldy says this joint meal is important to show that Syrian people are serious about working but also want to enjoy life. The refugee chef experiment also features cooks from Iran, Ivory Coast and Sri Lanka. It was the idea of Food Sweet Food, an organization that encourages dialogue through home-cooked meals.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Diners are brought course after course, each served with French wines. Businessman Olivier Carot says the Syrian touch is subtle.

OLIVIER CAROT: The spices don't hide the original taste, so it's very - it's very nice to have it in the mouth.

BEARDSLEY: But he says the meal gets him thinking beyond food. He says it could help counter people's fears about refugees.

CAROT: This kind of action, because it's linked with food - which is one of the pillar of our culture - I think it helps to accept the fact that we need to be more open.

BEARDSLEY: Carot thinks France and Europe, much like this meal, could be enriched by opening up to refugees and their diversity. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.