23rd October 2015
Interviews: Johanna Derry
Photographs: Yousef Eldin
The idea was conceived by Nikandre Kopcke, a New Yorker who came to London in 2010 to do a Masters at the LSE’s Gender Institute. It is an unashamedly feminist response to the experience of her Greek godmother, Maria Marouli, who dreamed of running her own restaurant, but as a migrant and as a woman found her situation in life made this impossible. Soon after Kopcke moved to London, while doing charity work with FoodCycle, she started meeting skilled migrant women who were having difficulty finding work in the UK. Mazí Mas is her way of helping them achieve what her godmother could not.
Four evenings a week, the kitchen at Ovalhouse comes alive with conversation and heady aromas of cooking. Roberta Siao, the Brazilian kitchen manager, oversees a team of seven chefs from countries including Peru, Ethiopia, Iran and Senegal. The menu takes the cuisine of a different country as its focus each night, which means the whole team gets to learn one another’s dishes.
The day I go to see them, they are preparing an Ethiopian menu and a lot of laughter is spilling out into the dining area. They all believe that a happy kitchen makes the cooking taste better. “We don’t just want to prepare lovely food, we want our chefs to feel better about themselves, and to be treated well in the kitchen,” says programmes manager Mara Klein. “All your food can be ethically sourced, but if you treat each other badly, then it’s hypocrisy. This is a protective and nurturing space.”
Amid the aromatics and the spice, does the conviviality of these women shine through in the food? Call me a romantic, but I think it does.
Roberta was born in Rio de Janeiro and used to work in a bank. She’s been part of Mazí Mas since its beginning in 2012, and now manages the kitchen
“When I was a child, about seven years old, we used to go to our family’s house in the countryside. The first thing I wanted to do when we got there was to cook. I’d ask my mum, and she’d get some bricks and build a fire, and then I’d invite my friends to come and join me at “my restaurant”. I’ve always loved food. But then I grew up, studied, and got a job.
I met my husband while I was in the UK on holiday. We got married, I fell pregnant and I couldn’t get work so I stayed at home. But once my son was old enough I realised that I couldn’t work even if I wanted to. I didn’t want to go back to the bank, but I had no connections. I spent months thinking I was completely useless. Like a lot of mothers do, I guess.
I decided I was going to find work that involved cooking and I started to volunteer for FoodCycle. That’s where I met Niki and straight away we clicked, talking about feminism and food. I’ve been here with Mazí Mas from the start and now I’m managing the kitchen, helping other women like me, and helping to make the world a better place.
My signature dish is fish moqueca. It’s a fish stew from Brazil made with coconut milk and palm oil from the north-east of the country. The combination of the palm oil and the coconut milk gives it a very particular flavour. My mum and my aunt would both make it for a special occasion and to me the smell of it and the way it tastes is totally homely. There’s nothing in this country that smells like it. It’s like 31 days of sunshine in Rio.”
Azeb is from Addis Ababa. She lived in Italy for 17 years, which means that as well as making amazing Ethiopian food, she can also knock out a mean lasagne
“I learned English in school in Ethiopia, but because I lived in Italy for 18 years I forgot it all. So I couldn’t speak any English when I moved here, but when you’re in a kitchen, you know, food is the language. It’s the food that makes sense. We’re a multi-lingual group so there’s always someone who can translate for someone else. I didn’t have any problems communicating and I learned quickly.
I started cooking once I got married because I had to and the food had to be good. I began cooking for parties – 15 or 25 people at a time, and I realised I liked it. I just made the food that I grew up with, that my mother made for us.
I make tibs and kibe for the menu here as well as at home. Tibs is a beef dish made with chilli powder from Ethiopia (the chilli has to come from Ethiopia). And kibe is made with cabbage, carrot, onion, garlic and red lentils. We use a lot of garlic everywhere in our cooking.
In London I didn’t have work and I was stuck at home, until I joined Mazí Mas. Now I have work, I have confidence, I’ve learned how to cook different foods, and I can manage a kitchen. Everything felt familiar from the start and we all talk and work easily together.
I’ve realised it’s not just the language that makes a difference to communication in a kitchen. If there’s a bad atmosphere and people are unhappy it makes it a really difficult place to learn and to work. Mazí Mas has never been like that.”
Zohreh is from Tehran, where she studied art. She sees the food she makes as a way of making art, an outlet for creative expression
“There was a scientist in Iran called Abu Ali Sina who wrote a book on medicine in Arabic. He used it to suggest how to cook with certain ingredients. For example, he’d say, if you’re cooking meat with fat in it, then you have to use dry lime because that kills the fat when you eat the two together. And cinnamon too, which is good for the body. Everything he suggested was based on the benefit it might have for your health. And that’s why Iranian food is so delicious, because we follow his rules and every dish is well-balanced.
It’s traditional in Iran to teach all this to your daughters so they can cook well for their husbands. People say that the way to make a man fall in love is through his belly. My mum was the opposite of every single woman in our country. She believed that it was better for me not to learn how to cook, so that I wouldn’t be shackled to the kitchen.
But I loved cooking! So I used to watch her, and when I came to the UK I started to make traditional food. I use a lot of herbs and barberries and eggs, and chicken, which is always cooked for a special occasion. We say that if a table has no chicken, the people around it must be poor.
I heard that Mazí Mas were looking for women who could make food from different cultures. I’d always thought you had to have qualifications to become a chef. They were really encouraging and have given me training. Everything I make is very natural in my own community, but in this country I realised not many people have the skills I have. It’s great I get to share my talent.”
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