New cafe addresses direct provision’s cooking ban

Actor Stephen Rea opened Our Table cafe in Dublin, where asylum seekers cook and refugees gain work

The actor Stephen Rea became the first official customer of Our Table, a pop-up cafe in Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar on Tuesday morning.

The cafe aims to create awareness of living conditions in direct provision centres, where asylum seekers are denied the opportunity to cook their own food, as well as offer on-the-job training opportunities to refugees who have been granted asylum.

“The injustice of it is just so striking,” Mr Rea said. The no-cooking rule in direct provision centres is “denying people the right to nurture their family”, according to the actor.

Campaigner and activist Ellie Kisyombe and cafe owner Michelle Darmody, co-founders of Our Table, said the venture is the first step in a move to establish a kitchen where those going through the process of seeking asylum can gain experience in catering, as well as share their cooking skills.

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“We decided to set up a training space where people who want to work in the catering industry can come and work with us for a few months, and we’re building a network of friendly businesses where they can move on to. They’ll get a barista certificate and health and safety training, and experience of working,” said Ms Darmody.

Paid internship

“We have seven people working here on a paid internship basis. Some of them have never worked, they’ve come straight from direct provision, now they are learning how to work in the hospitality industry.

“They are waking up knowing that they have a purpose,and they will be paying tax, contributing to the economy,” said Ms Kisyombe, who is from Malawi and has been in the direct provision system for six years.

The cafe is being managed by Lucky Khambule, from South Africa, who was recently granted asylum and who is spokesman for the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland.

Finance for the cafe was raised through a 28-day campaign on the crowdfunding platform Fund It, which raised €11,465.

The intention is that the cafe, which will open for three months, will be self-funding, with profits directed back into staff training.

“Anyone running a food business in Ireland will tell you staff margins are crucial. Here, we’re running a business with much higher staff margins because we are hiring people with no experience, so we have to hire more people to cover the same work,” Ms Darmody said.

The cafe will open from 10am to 4pm, Monday to Friday. Spicy bean soup, African honey bean falafel and savoury Syrian pastries were on the menu for the official opening day, and the menu will change regularly to reflect the national cuisines of those working and volunteering there.

Sustainable business

Our Table is renting the premises for the cafe pop-up and, for Ms Kisyombe and Ms Darmody, “somewhere permanent, with our own front door”, is the next step.

“We have quite a few people interested in helping. We want to create a sustainable business, not something that will need cash injections constantly. If we can get this up and running and know our margins, know exactly how it works, it should be able to fund itself. Similarly, with the kitchen, we’ll probably need money to set up, but ultimately it would be to create a sustainable business,” said Ms Darmody.

“We are dying for the kitchen. It’s important to me as an asylum seeker who has not been able to cook for six years,” said Ms Kisyombe.

Our Table also hopes to set up a garden – to grow food for the kitchen and to provide horticultural training.

The two women met a year ago when Ms Darmody approached the Irish Refugee Council, where Ms Kisyombe was volunteering, to offer to work with them on a project “about food and bringing communities together through food”.

They and others involved in the Our Table project organised a series of one-off events earlier this year – a two-day pop-up in April, where people from a variety of countries, living in direct provision, came togther and cooked a menu they had devised; an event in June linked to the Street Feast programme and a lunch and workshops at IMMA in August.