The Supperclub Helping Refugees Become Food Entrepreneurs

With so many chefs trying to make their mark in an already busy industry, it can be hard to break through but with SOOP, a social enterprise group & supper club helping people with refugee and migrant status get into the food industry, they’re starting something a little different…

Over ten weeks the participants of SOOP, or Stories On Our Plate, are encouraged to shape and create their food career goals through a mix of practical, hands-on cooking experience and career advice from volunteer ambassadors across the food industry, including chefs, supper club hosts, entrepreneurs and businesses like E5 Bakehouse.

Then at the end of those ten weeks, participants plan, promote and host their own supper club. So on a rainy Thursday evening in Battersea’s London Cooking Project, we went along to Hasifa’s graduation supper club celebrating the food of her Syrian culture – Parcels of Love: Hasifa’s Gateway to the Orient to find out more. What started out as ‘just’ another supper club quickly turned into something genuinely special.

With a ylanjii (onions, tomatoes and parsley cooked in pomegranate sauce and wrapped in vine leaves) as hors d’oeuvres, a mezze of fattoush salad, falafel, m’tabbal, hummus and flatbread for starter, then makloubeh with chilli tomato and yogurt sauce and kofte for main and balouza to finish, each item on the menu was a bitesize memory.

Hasifa explains: “This [balouza] was my father’s favourite and he used to ask me to make this. I grew up loving doing it and making it afterwards.”

After filling our stomachs with a Syrian feast, we spoke to co-founder Jack Fleming to find out a little more about how SOOP got started.

So explain to us who is behind SOOP?

“There’s myself, Joleen and Laura; we got together last summer. My background is in dispute resolution, Joleen is a food anthropologist who’s run healthy eating programmes in schools for years then Laura is in corporate head hunting. So we’ve all got very different backgrounds, which has really paid off from a day-to-day skill sharing.”

What made you start SOOP?

“What we all wanted to do when we came together was to use food as a means of social economic opportunity for those who don’t have the opportunities in everyday life. So that was the approach, rather than saying ‘we want to work with refugees, how do we do it’.”

So you’re called Stories On Our Plate, what’s so important about the storytelling element?

“Celebrating our differences through the shared experience of storytelling and a meal underlines our philosophy. The story element has always played a huge part, it’s the story behind the food, it’s not stories about perilous journeys per-say but having said that they have the space to communicate whatever they want, it’s completely up to them. Part of the programme is a confidence building, so they have to teach their recipes and food to the other people on the course, so linked into that is them developing their confidence to share their story.”

What’s been the highlights of the last 10 weeks?

“The programme has been littered with highlights and each week’s been different. The fact that they’re both getting jobs out of the end of it, not that that’s the concrete aim of the programme, is just fantastic.

“I think the best thing we’ve done is the ambassador approach, which has lead on to natural mentorships. Week one we had a North Indian supper club chef come in and she struck up a natural friendship with both of them, which lead to her getting them both to come in and do some more work experience at some of her supper clubs.

“As the first programme you kind of just have to allow it and see where it goes to a certain extent but really it’s been the ambassadorial approach which has allowed the mentorship to work which has been great.”

What are the plans for the next one:

“So the next programme isn’t until January as we’re expanding to six participants. We’re also moving to Greenwich as we’ve partnered with the Greenwich Community Development Agency and Good Food Greenwich, who do a lot of fantastic work round food poverty & surplus and a lot of grass roots work.”

Do you have any advice for people setting up their own initiative?

“It’s easier said than done but try and reach out to people who have a similar thinking and join forces with people that have a shared vision or shared mission. There’s a great spirit of social entrepreneurism but you know, you don’t all need to do your own thing. There’s a lot of merit for looking at what’s out there and approaching other young enterprises, if there’s something that’s out there and really speaks to you, initially observe it and get in touch and try and meet them.

“Also really take your time. I think with entrepreneurism, some people make it a race and really you just need to calm down and really think it through. Especially if you’re thinking about working with migrants and refugees, do not use them as a commodity, especially if you’re trying to make it into a social business, be really careful. We’ve really benefitted from taking our time.” 

And you can definitely say its paid off.

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Maria Bell

Maria Bell is a photographer and editor from the Isle of Wight. Talk to her about food and/or photog...


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