Why you should care
Because even Paris can stand to up its foodie game.
The heart of Paris is in its restaurants. Like so many things about the city, it’s a cliché that’s undeniably true. The bistros, the crepe stands — everywhere you go, Paris expresses its Frenchness through food, and there’s nothing so sacred as the bistro menu: flat round galettes, mounds of raw meat, piles of buttery stewed vegetables. Except if you think about that meal — the flat bread, the raw meat, the gleaming greens — it’s exactly what you’d find on an Ethiopian plate, too.
It is notoriously difficult to break into French culture and make it your own, and that’s truer for the nation’s thousands of new refugees than for anyone else. President François Hollande has committed to accepting 30,000 over the next two years; new people from new cultures will be bringing their traditions into France. So the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and French food organization Food Sweet Food came up with the Refugee Food Festival, which places refugees who are also chefs into 10 Parisian kitchens for a night.
Tartare is just next door to kibbeh nayyeh, the classic Middle Eastern dish of spices and raw minced lamb.
And not just any kitchens. For all of France’s fancy reputation, the glittering five-star restaurants aren’t where most people actually eat. For Stephane Jego, head chef of cozy Basque bistro L’Ami Jean, which will be hosting a chef for the festival, this is a moral mission. “It could be you, me, anyone. Anyone can have their liberty destroyed,” he says. “And for myself, I wanted to see another side of gastronomy.” He and Mohammed El Khaldy, a Syrian chef who’s been in France since last year, have been working together “cook to cook, human to human” to make a menu that’s both French and Syrian, teasing out the similarities between the two cuisines — for example, tartare is just next door to kibbeh nayyeh, the classic Middle Eastern dish of spices and raw minced lamb. In other restaurants across Paris, other refugee chefs will be rolling up their sleeves and teaching their French compatriots the basics of Indian, Chechen, Iranian and Sri Lankan food.
And, Jego says, this isn’t an act of charity — this could truly shake up Paris. After all, strong immigrant presences from Asia have borne a thriving Japanese and Vietnamese food culture in the city, leading even the most confirmed bistro regulars to stray to the sushi bar and the upscale pho places that dot the 20th arrondissement. But there’s little African or Middle Eastern food in the city, aside from the ubiquitous Lebanese kebab joints — there are a few Ethiopian places, and Moroccan, but those haven’t really caught on, despite the built-in appeal of, say, kitfo to France’s tartare-obsessed masses. The new communities of refugees arriving from Syria and Eritrea could bring a new wave of fusion cuisine and spice into Paris’ restaurant nightlife, especially with a little nudge from bistro culture — and enough raw meat to go around.