Refugees and immigrants find recipe for success in London restaurant

Wednesday 3rd June, 2015

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Mazi Mas restaurant aims to empower female immigrants and refugees to move into the labour market as trained chefs

The restaurant caters for events that teach the chefs to work together and experience success on their own

At Mazi Mas restaurant in South London, immigrant and refugee women from all over the world are preparing the local dishes of their home countries.

Today, Chef Azeb is preparing an Ethiopian menu and Chef Ezgi is preparing for tomorrow's Turkish meal. The menu changes every three days and is put on the restaurant’s website in advance.

The cooks are women who, for years, had been unable to get a job in England. Mazi Mas employs them, utilising their cooking skills.

The restaurant is called Mazi Mas, meaning “with us” in Greek, and was devised by Nikandre Kopcke, 28, whose godmother emigrated from Greece to America in  the 1960s. Kopcke’s godmother wasn’t allowed to open up her own bakery, so she used her culinary skills to find work as a nanny.

These women just need support and opportunities to set up their own businesses

“I wanted to create a platform for women to show their incredible skills - skills that they’ve developed over a lifetime of running households. We don’t train them here. We formalise the skills they already have. When they arrived in the UK, these women were taught that they should seek charity. Now they need to be taught how to make use of the skills they already possess,” Kopcke says.

The restaurant opened in 2012, and also caters for events that teach the chefs to work together on planning an event, carrying it out and experiencing success on their own.

“It builds their confidence. After a long time of being rejected by workplaces, the women need that,” Kopcke says. “And their children need to see their mothers succeed.”

Kopcke wants to empower the women and train them so they can move into the labour market as trained chefs.

Ezgi Koyupinar, Turkey, and Marlith Tenazoa Del Aguila, Peru

“We are turning the skills they already have into economic opportunities for themselves and their families. They need to be recognized for the skills they already have and not just be pushed into doing low-level jobs that robots could do,” Kopcke says.

And so far, Kopcke has been successful in her project.

“All of our chefs have gone on to some form of permanent job, from full-time chef roles to getting their own catering gigs. One problem is that some chefs come back, simply because the working conditions in some restaurants are too bad. Here they almost have it too good,” Kopcke says proudly.

It is no secret that for migrants and refugees finding a job is often a difficult task. But the picture painted of immigrants being uneducated is false, according to Kopcke.

“Roberta, 43, was unemployed for 10 years. She left a HR job in Brazil and looked for opportunities everywhere when she moved here but she was rejected from all cafes and bars. She was part of the reason I started the restaurant, because people like her need an opportunity.”

The current team consists of chefs from Ethiopia, Brazil, Peru, Iran, Turkey and Nicaragua. Soon the team will add chefs from China and the Ivory Coast.

Azeb Woldemichael from Ethiopia utilises her cooking skills in Mazi Mas

Mazi Mas recently started a collaboration with Lilley & Skinner (Cockney rhyming slang for “dinner”), a group of 10 women who own cafes or bars. Kopcke explains: “They are providing work placements for our chefs, which will hopefully turn into jobs. I’m hoping that half of the ones doing it now will move on to being full time employees.”   

The business will have to eventually become profitable, at least if Kopcke’s ambitions of becoming a full-time restaurant owner are to come true.

“Within a year I want to open a permanent restaurant in London. Looking into the future, I want to see a Mazi Mas in every big city in the world. I want us to build a strong incubator programme, because, fundamentally, these women just need support and opportunities to set up their own businesses.” She looks around proudly. “They can do it, there’s no doubt about it.”