The long, open kitchen of Ochenta Nextdoor is on display for the whole restaurant to behold. You are able to watch as the row of dexterous hands, like some culinary conveyor belt, pieces together mouth-watering creations. The operators this evening were the guest Moroccan chef Rachida and the restaurant owner Oscar, and when I caught them, they were laying the final preparations for the penultimate meal of Madrid’s Refugee Food Festival.
Another fully booked night, with Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena in attendance, was in store for the festival that continues to utilise the medium of quality food to shift perspectives and connect talented chefs with local businesses.
Originally from Morocco, the evening’s chef Rachida told me how cooking, first and foremost, is “a hobby, not a job.” Having moved to Syria with her husband she was forced to flee with her family, reaching Madrid this February after, like all our chefs this week, a tumultuous journey. While she is used to cooking for friends and family, she is more than capable of handling herself on a larger scale and recently impressed at the latest Old World edition of Chefugee.
Rachida believes that “good cooking creates special occasions” and tonight was very special indeed as she had prepared a fusion of Syrian and Moroccan flavours for us to enjoy. Kicking-off proceedings was a rich array of aperitifs to choose from including baba ganoush, lentil soup, and a light cucumber salad. The first course offered a choice of aubergines stuffed with aromatic Syrian spiced rice and topped with a tangy tomato sauce, or flavoursome cheese and spinach samosas. After that came either smoked hake over almonds and bulgur, a type of Middle Eastern wheat rice, or a traditional lamb tajin served alongside a helping of gently spiced cous cous. And if you had enough room left after all this, you could finish with baspousa, a smooth Syrian style cheesecake accompanied by a scoop of cinnamon ice cream.
Our hosts, Ochenta Nextdoor, are typically known for their high-quality Spanish cuisine ensuring all their products are made from scratch. Tonight however, they entered wholeheartedly into their unique guest menu. The owner Oscar told me how important it was to take part, saying he had been humbled by chefs like Rachida who “are having such a hard time in their lives but are still making efforts to immerse themselves into their new society and culture.” He also told me how the restaurant benefited from an “enriching” experience through which they discovered many secrets of Syrian and Moroccan cuisine, so much so, they intend to include Rachida’s stuffed aubergine dish on their menu this coming week.
This two-way learning process highlights an important element of the festival’s mission to connect local businesses with untapped refugee talent. Restaurants are introduced to exotic new flavours or even potential chefs to employ; meanwhile the chefs themselves gain vital kitchen knowledge. Rachida described this evening as a “very new and different experience”, in which she learnt many skills from such a practised team; and with the dream of opening her own restaurant she explained it will help ensure “a good future for me and my family.”
As the skilled kitchen conveyor belt began to weave a tapestry of Rachida’s dishes, she gracefully began her tour of the tables to explain her dishes and share her experiences on what she termed a truly “exceptional day.”
Written by Sam Allan
Translated by Laura Rodriguez del Valle
Photography by Jane Mitchell