Syr­ian chef serves up slice of home in Greek camp

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Be­fore brav­ing a ‘trip of death’ to es­cape Syria, Talal Rank­oussi was a chef in a Da­m­as­cus restau­rant con­sid­ered the largest in the world. Bawa­bet Al Di­mashq Da­m­as­cus Gate-still holds that dis­tinc­tion in the Guin­ness Book of Records as it can seat over 6,000 peo­ple. So when 41-year-old Talal was asked by a US bene­fac­tor to spice up the meals for sev­eral hundred fel­low Syr­i­ans at the Rit­sona camp near Athens, the two-decade culi­nary vet­eran did not hes­i­tate. The fa­ther of three, who crossed the Aegean in Fe­bru­ary in “a trip of death, rid­ing a plas­tic tyre in an ocean un­der the rain”, says the food handed out in the camp “is un­der­cooked... with no re­gard to im­prov­ing the qual­ity.”

Like most refugee camps in Greece, Rit­sona re­ceives daily meals from cater­ing com­pa­nies com­mis­sioned by the army. But in terms of qual­ity and nu­tri­tional value, it “just cov­ers sur­vival needs,” says a camp op­er­a­tor who de­clined to be named. “It’s been a chal­lenge just to get the cater­ers to send pitta bread in­stead of white bread,” the op­er­a­tor says, adding that “some­times we have 200 meals left over that no­body wants to eat.”

En­ter ‘Madame Sharba’

Then came Carolynn Rock­afel­low, an Amer­i­can for­mer in­vest­ment banker who moved to Greece last year af­ter a 30-year ca­reer, in­clud­ing two decades at Credit Suisse. Rock­afel­low, orig­i­nally from New York, has taken a per­sonal in­ter­est in the well-be­ing of Rit­sona’s 700 refugees, nearly half of them chil­dren. With per­sonal funds and do­na­tions from friends, Rock­afel­low has cre­ated Cafe Rits, of­fer­ing al­ter­na­tive cui­sine out of one of the camp’s few brick-and-mor­tar build­ings. “I feel this story is as much about help­ing the Greeks as it is about help­ing the refugees,” Rock­afel­low says over the sound of Talal fu­ri­ously chop­ping vegeta­bles.

“This is a very tough sit­u­a­tion for Greece and I think they’re do­ing a great job,” says the woman whose nick­name around the camp is Madame Sharba, or Mrs Soup. Sev­eral times a week, she and a few helpers drive out to a su­per­mar­ket on the nearby is­land of Evia and load a van with sup­plies for the day’s meals, plus meat and vegeta­bles for camp fam­i­lies to do their own cook­ing. About 3,000-5,000 euros ($3,200-5,300) a week goes into the Cafe bud­get. “Ev­ery­day we have dis­tri­bu­tion of ei­ther vegeta­bles, meats or cooked meals. Meat once a week, vegeta­bles twice or three times a week, cooked food twice a week,” says Talal, now keep­ing a close eye on a bubbling caul­dron of onion broth. Sta­ple Syr­ian recipes in­clude kibbeh, fat­toush salad, maqluba rice, muham­mara dip-mostly made with lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents, and all a far cry from what Greek cater­ing ser­vices can pro­vide.

‘Bring back their cul­ture’

Cafe Rits is like an over­sized food truck, with­out the wheels. The walls are lined with pots, pans, tins and cut­lery. A long bench where the food is pre­pared cuts across the room, while gas-fired stoves stand near the en­trance. Wa­ter is brought in a plas­tic tub as there is no pip­ing. Or heat­ing. “I wanted to find a way to em­power refugees, to bring them back their cul­ture through food,” says Rock­afel­low, who has two grown-up chil­dren and was a vol­un­teer chef in the af­ter­math of hur­ri­canes Ka­t­rina and Sandy in the US. “Syr­ian peo­ple love to of­fer hos­pi­tal­ity and some­thing of them­selves through food,” she added.

The dozen-strong vol­un­teer team also pre­pares lunch bags for around 80 of the camp’s chil­dren who take af­ter­noon classes at nearby schools. “We also host par­ties. It’s im­por­tant to laugh... and to re­mem­ber that this, too, shall pass,” she says, adding that she wants to use her ex­pe­ri­ence to help her refugee vol­un­teers find jobs once they leave Greece. Talal, who reached Greece in Fe­bru­ary af­ter a poor ex­pe­ri­ence try­ing to find em­ploy­ment in Turkey, has ap­plied for asy­lum in sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries in­clud­ing Ger­many, Hol­land and France. But he would have “no prob­lem” dish­ing out to pa­trons in a Greek es­tab­lish­ment if given the chance. “This is my in­ter­est. This is my job,” the stoic chef says with a smile. — AFP

Chil­dren board a bus to get to school as vol­un­teer holds a crate with sand­wiches pre­pared in camps ‘cafe Rits’.

Chil­dren board a bus to get to school as vol­un­teer holds a crate with sand­wiches pre­pared in camps ‘cafe Rits’.

A child gets a snack from a vol­un­teer work­ing in the kitchen of ‘cafe Rits’ in Rit­sona refugee camp, some 80 km north of Athens. — AFP pho­tos

Chef Talal Rank­oussi puts fi­nal touch to the pre­pared meal in the “cafe Rits” in Rit­sona refugee camp.

Carolynn Rock­afel­low (right) and vol­un­teers help chef Talal Rank­oussi to cook a meal in the ‘Cafe Rits’.

Chil­dren eat rice from a meal cooked by chef Talal Rank­oussi and vol­un­teers out­side the ‘Cafe Rits’.

Chef Talal Rank­oussi and other Syr­ian vol­un­teers pre­pare a meal in ‘cafe Rits’.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.