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.