Breaking bread, breaking barriers
Initiatives across the country are bringing people together to share two of life’s greatest gifts: food and conversation. Let these hearty helpings of inspiration spark your own ideas for getting young people out into the community
Last year the UK appointed a minister of loneliness, a project started by the late MP Jo Cox. Research linking a loneliness epidemic to early deaths emphasised the need for greater social connection, with the elderly, refugees, young people and new parents thought to be particularly at risk.
In environments prone to isolation the idea of a pop-up supper – a temporary restaurant where strangers gather to share a meal together – seems ripe with possibility. These suppers are platforms to connect with others and an excuse to try out unfamiliar or unexpected foods, both a communal experience and a culinary adventure.
One Scottish couple have taken the concept to a whole new level. Alongside fellow old hands from the hospitality industry, they’ve challenged themselves to open not just one but 20 pop-up restaurants, in 20 countries over 20 months.
Serving under the name One Star House Party, they spend two weeks collecting ingredients and exploring a country’s cuisine, before setting up a temporary restaurant with a menu that fuses their own culinary influences with the local flavours they’ve discovered. From Nepal to Kenya, they’ve simmered up sauces on trains, hotel roofs and even at Mount Everest Base Camp, where for that one day it was the highest restaurant in the world.
But we don’t have to go that far to discover new flavours. In our cosmopolitan communities we can travel via our taste buds by exploring the diversity of food in our own neighbourhoods. However, as these initiatives show, it’s through the stories of the people behind the food that we discover the most.
Cooking up connections
Stories on Our Plate (SOOP) celebrates cuisines showcased by refugee, former refugee and migrant cooks, through their supper club series. SOOP believes we’re all united by ‘taste, memory and stories’.
Their aim is to ‘take diners to the kitchen table of our mothers and grandmothers’ to dish out stories everyone can relate to, creating a platform for cooks with origins from around the globe.
On the day we joined SOOP to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year marking the beginning of spring, it’s snowing in London. But inside The London Cooking Project, it’s warmly welcoming and we sit at long communal tables dotted with bright red apples, symbolising health. Mandana Moghaddam, a home cook with Iranian roots and our host, introduces us to Nowruz and its rituals – how participants wear new clothes for the occasion, and spend weeks preparing their homes to say goodbye to the old year – before reciting a Persian poem in honour of spring.
A local judge was seated to my left and to my right the chef’s father, who moved to London 30 years ago after he was banned from Iran for ‘no reason but for not thinking like them’. He spoke about Iranian history and politics, kept my teacup of Assam filled, shared his Instagram feed of typical Iranian houses, and told me how much he misses home. He beamed while watching his daughter, granddaughter and grandson taking care of guests around the room, sharing a delicious feast from home with a room of joyful strangers.
These dinners showcase individuals with individual stories. They remind us to avoid categorisation, even when it comes to food. Instead of grouping Middle Eastern foods into one pot, for instance, they showcase the distinct characteristics of its various regions. Each SOOP cook is encouraged to share their personal take on their cultural cuisines, from their upbringing, from their home.
SOOP is one-part supper club, one-part training programme for people (often home cooks) from migrant backgrounds wishing to launch their own food ventures.
It builds their knowledge on everything from hygiene and safety to gluten-free cooking. They spend time growing their con dence and sharing recipes, before graduating with their rst pop-up.
Jack Fletcher, a SOOP founder, previously worked in mediation and dispute resolution, where, he noticed later, food played a part. There was often suspicion around people coming in for casework home visits and he said food did something to relax the formality of things and build trust.
‘It could simply be tea and cake or sandwiches.’ He noticed how ‘in every household they were doing it a bit differently – different customs depending on the culture.’ When he left the sector he realised the role food played in ‘softening the approach with each other. It was a nice way to make it all feel a bit more human.’
Niki Psarias, a specialist in what she terms ‘food for good’, shared similar sentiments. Niki works with the peace-building organisation International Alert, running Con ict Café, a pop-up restaurant creating awareness about countries that have experienced con ict, by using their traditional foods.
Over a three-course meal, experts help diners unpack the topic – the history of the con ict, what’s happening now, what work is being done to build peace, and what guests might do to bring people together in their own communities. In an informal way, guests develop an understanding of complicated situations in a space where they’re meeting new people, sharing dishes, and by the end of the evening, sharing phone numbers and email addresses too.
Niki recently launched Border Kitchen, which began with a meal in Nicosia in Cyprus, the only divided capital in Europe. It brought chefs from the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities together, along with diners from both sides of the border, showcasing the power of food to build understanding. Niki believes good food not only relaxes us and makes us more open to conversation, but is also ‘a way to show our identity, identify with a certain culture, and share identity.’
On the border of Armenia and Turkey, where a long-standing con ict exists, International Alert brought together women from both countries to cook together. ‘The kitchen was a space to connect,’ Niki explained, ‘despite all the pain of the past, and sometimes of the present; to realise “oh, you might add one different ingredient but our dishes are actually very similar because we share a border.”’
It’s easy to forget the value of reaching out to our neighbours. In the UK, The Great Get Together was established in 2017 as a way to bring people together. Also inspired by Jo Cox, this countrywide weekend event of community get-togethers has now taken place for a second year. We spoke to Iona Lawrence, director of the Jo Cox Foundation, as well as her friend and camping companion, about last year’s event. It was an extraordinary success that she credits to ‘the participation and support of organisations like the Scouts, being some of the UK’s most powerful and emblematic institutions of Britain and British values.’
An impressive nine million people took part, from Scouts and Guides coming together for an event in Wales, to RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) volunteers joining refugees on the banks of the Thames to celebrate all they have in common. At Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan brought thousands together, and, as Iona said, ‘In streets up and down the country, handfuls of people knocked on neighbours’ doors suggesting they share a picnic.’
At an Iftar event in Yorkshire, where the Great Get Together coincided with the daily breaking of the Ramadan fast at sunset, Jo’s sister Kim struck up a conversation with an Imam and within 24 hours they’d decided to go to a rugby match together, a rst for both of them. And the friendship has lasted.
Of the people who attended the Great Get Together, 70% met someone new, and a similar number of people came away from the weekend feeling more positive about the future of the country. ‘There’s a connection shared by the simple act of sharing food,’ Iona explained, ‘but that really comes from the conversations that are had while you’re eating.’
- Why not encourage your young people to host a community event, like a picnic, bake sale or pop-up dinner in your meeting place?
- Find out if any budding cooks in your section would like to bring in a dish that celebrates their heritage.
- Create a section recipe book featuring dishes young people can share from home. They could include a story about where the recipe came from and how they came to love it.
- Support young people working towards their International Activity Badges, by exploring the food and heritage from around the world.
Illustration: Joy Miessi