Towards a Feminist Kitchen | The Nourishing Arts of Mazi Mas

mazi mas
This is my account of volunteering at Mazi Mas, a restaurant that trains talented refugee and migrant home cooks to be professional chefs in London – and an attempt to answer the question: “What is a feminist kitchen?”

Luce Giard ‘The Nourishing Art’ in The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol. 2 (1998)

“Women bereft of writing who came before me, you who passed on to me the shape of your hands or the color of your eyes, you whose wish anticipated my birth, you who carried me, and fed me like my great-grandmother blinded with age who would await my birth before succumbing to death, you whose names I mumbled in my childhood dreams, you whose beliefs and servitudes I have not preserved, I would like the slow remembrance of your gestures in the kitchen to prompt me with words that will remain faithful to you; I would like the poetry of words to translate that of gestures; I would like a writing of words and letters to correspond to your writing of recipes and tastes. As long as one of us preserves your nourishing knowledge, as long as the recipes of your tender patience are transmitted from hand to hand and from generation to generation, a fragmentary yet tenacious memory of your life itself will life on. 
The sophisticated ritualization of basic gestures has thus become more dear to me than the persistence of words and texts, because body techniques seem better protected from the superficiality of fashion, and also, a more profound and heavier material faithfulness is at play there, a way of being-in-the-world and making it one’s home.”
When I asked the chefs at Mazi Mas where they learned to cook, they said “my mother”, “my grandmother”. Marlith Tenazoa Del Aguila from the Peruvian Amazon, Roberta Siao from Brazil, Isik Kahveci from Turkey, Saira Talavera from Nicaragua and Azeb Woldemichael from Ethiopia – women with migrant and refugee backgrounds – were working in the kitchen when I volunteered doing food prep. Last year, the roaming social enterprise restaurant was based at the Oval House Theatre near my house in Camberwell (it has since moved to The Russett in Hackney).No men are allowed in the kitchen. Mazi Mas is a restaurant whose focus is helping women turn their home cooking into a livelihood. They audition in their own kitchens, and if successful, they can come and cook their food at the restaurant. The menu was short during its tenure at Oval: starters were taken from a number of the chefs, and one main course was featured each night, made in meat and vegetarian versions.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 17.03.27
Image: Mazimas.co.uk

“This is a feminist kitchen,” Roberta, who was kitchen manager, would say. She often spoke about sisterhood and the importance of women holding each other up. She often spoke about the value of women’s skills and knowledge and qualities. I didn’t share a language with the other chefs I usually worked with (Spanish and Portuguese), so I couldn’t discuss politics with them. What was a feminist kitchen? A room of women is not necessarily a room of feminists. I found out the answer during my time there, but through actions, rather than abstracted discussions.

“This is a feminist kitchen”

I came in at 2pm to help prepare the dishes for evening service: washing lettuce and finely slicing it to maximise cost-effectiveness to Roberta’s precise instruction; peeling a crate of cassava roots for chips, a punishing task with a particular knack; making salsa; chopping ingredients to be added to dishes; preparing pre-made main courses; and lots of washing up.

When Roberta was not there to translate, we used our bodies to communicate ‘the sophisticated ritualisation of basic gestures’ required to cook together. Marlith, always glamorous even in an apron and kitchen clogs, nodded encouragingly and gestured the stages of making Pastel de Choclo, a buttery, spiced maize bake filled with beef and raisins. Another time, when I was struggling to peel cassava, she took the hefty root and knife that was blistering my thumb and showed me another way. Roberta did the same on another occasion when I was still struggling.

cassava chips
Cassava Chips | Image: Mazimas.co.uk

Trying to pick up as much as I could, I was struck by the complex sequence of actions and processes required to make each of their dishes. Saira’s Nacatamales – steamed corn cake with pork, onions and peppers wrapped in banana leaves – required so much work: simmering Nicaraguan blitzed corn (large white kernels, not sweet like British sweetcorn) with blitzed up alliums; heating bright red annatto spice in oil to colour and flavour it; allowing it to cool; marinating pork; peeling and slicing potatoes, peppers, onions, and preparing herbs; blanching banana leaves to make them pliable; carefully spreading the corn and carefully arranging the other ingredients on top, with a sprinkle of rice and seasoning and then wrapping the banana leaves around them to form a sealed parcel, secured with string; steaming them; unwrapping and checking seasoning and garnishing with fresh herbs, making a salsa to eat them with. Phew. Each of these stages requires close attention to detail if the finished Nacatamales are to succeed.

Isik’s baklava, the best I have ever tasted, required a specially designed wooden rod around which to wrap the filo as she deftly unfurled each new sheet out and painted it with melted butter and sugar and walnuts, then rolled it up again in layers. She brought her own wooden rod from home. Her rice that I had the privilege to eat for a staff meal, though plain to the eye, was addictive: fluffy, buttery and seasoned perfectly. She happily shared her method with me (lots of butter).

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 17.03.32
Image: Mazimas.co.uk

The chefs learned to cook in a diverse set of socio-cultural-geographical circumstances. Having travelled hundreds and thousands of miles, often living in more than one country en route to London, they brought with them unquantifiable, embodied skills and wisdom. They were not taught not by books, but by other women, who passed on years of accumulated knowledge, as well as by their own life experience, sharing kitchens with other cooks. 

They often pulled out ingredients that I had not seen or tasted, even in London. Buying food for home cooking is an unremarkable everyday task when local shops sell what you need to make your food.

When a cook is transplanted into a new geographical context, shopping is initially a pioneering endeavour into unfamiliar streets, unfamiliar shops and unfamiliar products, as well as an act of improvisation and imagination, when ingredients can’t be found. I became aware too, of how many vegetables and ingredients had been invisible to me because I was unfamiliar with them. I simply didn’t see cassavas in the grocer in Camberwell when I shopped there over the last decade, even though they’ve always been there.

All of the women are subtitled with their country of origin on the Mazi Mas website and on the menu. I think Roberta felt the irony of the romanticised foreignness that is one aspect of how Mazi Mas sells its food, as a social enterprise with the goal of helping the women feel ‘at home’ in Britain. She once joked, when showing me how to cook a cassava chip, “yes we are the cassava people, the jungle people from Brazil” and did a mocking, tribal dance. Also, although Azeb had lived for 17 years in Italy and had worked in Italian restaurants, she only cooked Ethiopian food for Mazi Mas. I wondered whether she would be allowed to make Italian food for Mazi Mas, or whether that would be considered off-brand.

In the kitchen, there was a mixture of difference and assimilation. Once, when we were listening to music and chopping, each of the chefs demonstrated the ‘sexy dancing’ from their country, we did salsa and belly dancing in aprons surrounded by piles of onions and lettuce and simmering cassava chips, untroubled by a male gaze. Roberta took my hips and showed me how to move like a Brazilian. Everyone helped to make dishes, learning each other’s skills and recipes. Many of the chefs have children and grandchildren in London and they would invite each other to family parties, discuss progress at school and share pictures. They took calls from their children in the kitchen and covered for each other if their kids were ill. Roberta discussed how she was raising her son to be a proud feminist.

Showing off and intimidating other chefs did not happen in the kitchen at Mazi Mas, nor was there ever any shouting. The horror stories I had heard from friends of being terrorised by egomaniacal head chefs could not have contrasted more with the atmosphere at Mazi Mas. Rudeness and posturing had no place in that kitchen. This is not to say every one was angelic: who is?

There was tension between Roberta, who was in charge of everything in the kitchen, responsible for ensuring the food was hygienic and of a restaurant standard, and a new chef when I was there. It was clear that the new chef was irritating Roberta, and that Roberta was irritating the new chef. Roberta nit-picked and scalded her. The new chef complained to me, and it was true, Roberta was picking on her. But then I noticed that the new chef had been lax when washing the lettuce, and had a tendency to be hasty and messy. I felt the great scale of Roberta’s achievement in maintaining a friendly, productive and professional kitchen when chefs had such differing levels of experience and culinary backgrounds. Perhaps in another kind of kitchen, the new chef would not have been hired in the first place, even though her food tasted divine. A few weeks in, the new chef was confident and happier, and Roberta was still fastidious.

So what is a feminist kitchen? I’m not sure I have a doctrinal answer to that question. However, the space for difference, the lack of aggression, the sharing of ideas and the pragmatic co-dependence of the chefs in the kitchen at Mazi Mas seems a good place to begin. 

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