Owner and executive chef of Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant Kai in Galway’s trendy Westend, Jess Murphy has bagged numerous awards over the years including Best Chef in Ireland 2018 (Restaurant Association of Ireland). Her food is comforting; yet wildly different — while Kai itself is a rustic, comfortable space with an entire counter devoted to cake (a proper Irish restaurant, indeed).
Murphy, originally from New Zealand, is also an immigrant – a topic she does not shy away from. In 2017, she, along with Galway PR professional Lisa Regan, launched their Open the Door movement to aid those living in Direct Provision in Ireland. Those in Direct Provision are mainly immigrants, arriving from conflicted countries with uncertain futures. They receive a small amount of money to survive on each week and can’t legally work. As a result, many of those living in Direct Provision centres are stuck in a cycle of poverty and circumstantial depression.
“With our current direct provision program, you’re taking away somebody’s food culture,” she says. “Imagine going home, everything’s blown up, you have nothing left, you move to a new country, you miss (your home country) so much and the only thing that could connect you to your culture is food – and you can’t cook.”
Many Direct Provision centres in Ireland have kitchens and meals are provided to those in residence. These meals are a far cry from what new refugees to Ireland would be used to in their home country, and some even lack basic nutritional content. Mass produced, from-frozen meals are easier to make than homemade, so that is what those living in Direct Provision centres are most often fed.
This upsets Murphy. As an immigrant and acclaimed chef, her experience coming to Ireland was vastly different by comparison. Refugees in Ireland have already been through terrible experiences and have risked their lives to come to the country – yet their risk of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are extremely high after they arrive.
Murphy feels that having the ability to cook for themselves would not only improve their nutritional needs, but the overall quality of life.
“Imagine if we had loads of Syrian chefs working in provisional centres?” she muses. “Surely to god, a hummus would be cheaper (to make) than a dodgy piece of farmed salmon. This is what we’re feeding these people.”
Last year, Murphy and Regan, in partnership with other immigrant-Irish chefs Damien Grey (of Heron & Grey Restaurant, Dublin) and Takashi Miyazaki (of Ichigo Ichie and Miyazaki, Cork) and acclaimed pastry chef Louise Bannon (formerly of Noma, Copenhagen) put on an event called The Far-Fetched Dinner.
This pop-up took place in Loam Restaurant, Galway and showcased the skills of three refugee-status Syrian chefs: Mhd Ahyam Orabi, Ahmad Orabi and Amer Marai. The event raised funds for three refugee cooks to study culinary arts at a local college.
This year, the event has grown exponentially to become the Irish Refugee Food Festival, with restaurants all over Ireland taking part in pop-up events. These events will welcome chefs and bakers with refugee status to share the foods and culture of their homelands.
The UN Refugee Agency is organizing the event in conjunction with Kai Restaurant (Galway), St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Dublin) and Lisa Regan PR (Galway). The festival will culminate in two separate welcome dinners in Dublin on the 22nd of June.
Murphy believes this initiative could someday lead to a possible solution to the massive chef shortage Ireland is currently experiencing.
“By having our peers from other countries in working, prepping and cooking food, we are filling positions where there is a real shortage of skilled staff,” she explains. “On top of this we are all learning from each other; experiencing real food culture in the kitchen.”
“We take so much for granted being from Ireland,” Regan adds. “This event is only going to grow legs and get bigger and better. I’m really excited about what’s going to happen this year. It’s a not-for-profit and all the proceeds are 100% just going to those who really need it.”
The following restaurants and food business will participate in the Refugee Food Festival, with events beginning on the 12th of June and finishing on World Refugee Day, June 22nd: Eastern Seaboard (Drogheda), Heron & Grey (Dublin), 3fe (Dublin), Five Points (Dublin), Cloud Picker Coffee in The Science Gallery (Dublin), Seasons Guinness Storehouse (Dublin), Bean and Goose (Ferns), Loam (Galway), Kai (Galway), Miyazaki (Cork), The Tannery (Dungarvan), Dela (Galway), Café Rua (Castlebar), Pudding Row (Easkey), Shell’s (Sligo), Sheridan’s Cheesemongers (Dublin and Galway), and FoodSpace operated restaurants and cafés (Ireland-wide).
For information on what’s happening in each restaurant, check out their websites and social media channels or search the hashtag #OpenTheDoorIreland.