Due to open their cookery school in Clerkenwell, Anastasia Georgousis talks to the staff at charity Migrateful, which unlocks the talents of migrant chefs
As Migrateful’s chef support officer Elizabeth KolawoleJohnson puts it, “We combined food and travel. Who doesn’t like food – and who doesn’t like travel?”
Migrateful runs cookery classes led by migrant chefs facing the challenge of integration and accessing employment in the UK due to legal and linguistic barriers. These classes allow them to build skills and confidence, as well as promoting a crosscultural exchange between migrant chefs and participants. Since being founded in 2017 by Jess Thompson (who featured on the 2020 Forbes 30 Under 30 and Women of the Year lists) the charity has now held over 1,674 classes, hosted 18,414 participants and supported 57 refugees.
Classes were previously held at a number of venues across London, giving Migrateful a nomadic existence. So in February, it launched a 90-day crowdfunding campaign to raise £126,00 to secure its own cookery school at The Peel’s Three Corners Centre. It raised half of the target in just two weeks, and in March, the Mayor of London pledged £45,000, helping it meet its goal. Donations continued to flood in, enabling Migrateful to transform the space, including an outdoor area with herb garden.
Local businesses have also been generous – the interior of the cookery school is being redesigned by Old Street-based architects AHMM and the outdoor landscaping will be done by MRG Studio. In a serendipitous move, the charity also found the perfect office space for its staff across the road at the Finsbury Business Centre.
“I can’t believe how lucky we got, it just worked out so beautifully,” says Nadine Shamji, Migrateful’s events coordinator. “The Finsbury Business Centre has been so accommodating, as has The Peel. It really has made us realise how much of a family concept Clerkenwell has, to have taken us in and we feel so welcomed to the area. It’s quite incredible.”
So what impact will having a permanent base make to Migrateful? “It’s really a very big one for us, and a long time coming,” says Elizabeth, who started out as a Migrateful chef when she arrived in the UK from Nigeria. “I’m in a unique position of being a staff member, chef and facilitator. I know it can be really difficult sometimes to move from place to place, trying to locate the venue for the night, carrying ingredients and equipment everywhere and adapting to new environments.”
The cookery school will also provide a space for Migrateful chefs, staff, participants and volunteers to come together. After over a year of operating remotely (it pivoted to online classes during the pandemic) the Migrateful community is excited to regroup and have a space to call their own. “We can curate the space to represent our team,” explains Nadine. “That is meaningful because it creates this home, an area where we can all get together and see each other. That has become more important than ever – and I think the pandemic has made us realise how much we should appreciate those little interactions that we have.”
Although the pandemic affected the way that chefs could interact with each other, they say it has been an “eyeopener”. Running classes online gave them a surprising international reach, with participants joining in from the US, Australia and Malaysia. It has also given the chefs the opportunity to develop their tech skills running a class from their own home. Elizabeth, who trained as a psychologist in Nigeria, also noticed a bigger change. “I know of a particular chef that pre-lockdown, was very shy. But [in lockdown] from the fact that she had the cocoon of her kitchen, and was not in a crowd but talking to a crowd, really built her confidence. Now coming back into a physical crowd, she has that confidence. Over lockdown that confidence was built for a number of other chefs too.”
Migrateful hopes to open the cookery school shortly. It’s keen to interact with the local Clerkenwell community, and hopes to host events and volunteer open evenings alongside their schedule of cookery classes.
Community and giving something back is a key part of Migrateful’s ethos. “Class participants know that they’re doing something wonderful and giving back to the world to help each individual but they are also in a position to learn from them,” says Nadine. “They’re receiving tips and amazing recipes, and that chance to just grow and learn with the chef.’ Adds Elizabeth, “‘We do give the chefs a chance to give something back, not just receive, because charity is very good, and when you need help you can find it which is very good for any human being.
“At the same time, I believe people don’t want to just be at the receiving end of charity. It helps their self-esteem as every one of our chefs believe they are giving something back. They feel a sense of hopefulness for the future. And that’s so important to the person who is waiting on the government’s decision to settle in a country. Because a lot of times we hope, the hope gets thrown away, confidence gets trampled upon and the loss of a sense of identity is very prevalent. With Migrateful, I really felt that reconnection to my old self.”
It becomes more than a charity, says Nadine: “Our participants feel that sense of community around Migrateful. It’s a home and a community. It involves everyone from our participants and volunteers to even the chefs and the staff. We’re all intertwined.’
Visit migrateful.org to book cookery classes. You can also find a volunteer form if you would like to help with classes, sharing skills with chefs at weekly team meetings, or pack ingredient boxes