Image: John Watson

How cookery classes shift attitudes towards refugees

Migrateful founder Jess Thompson on sharing food to reduce the prejudice of the ‘anxious middle’ 
February 28, 2024

Everyone’s talking and three giant vats are bubbling with hot stews and the blender is going off and there’s clanking and splashing. But the kitchen goes quiet when Belitha, the chef, steps over to the crock of hot oil and dips her hand in some cold batter. “Shh,” she says, “listen.” Smiling, she dollops a sizzling drop in the oil.

Today we are cooking and eating Belitha’s favourite Congolese recipes: fumbua (a wild spinach stew), a meat and aubergine stew, tshaka madesu (beans and cassava leaf stew), salade aux olives (olive salad), pili pili (chilli sauce), fufu (pounded ground rice and farina) and those sizzling doughnuts—mikate. I’m also here to learn about Migrateful, a charity that hosts cookery classes taught by refugees and migrants, and to meet its founder, Jess Thompson.

 “I always came from a family that would make communal eating a priority,” Thompson tells me when we speak before the class in Angel, north London. “What’s very accessible about Migrateful is, as long as you can enjoy eating, then you can be a part of it.”

Thompson launched Migrateful in 2017 at the age of 25, when she was feeling “pissed off” about Brexit. “There’s so much to be grateful to migration for,” she says. “Imagine what British cuisine would be without it.” A speaker of French and Spanish, she came up with the idea while working as a volunteer translator at resettlement camps in Ceuta and Dunkirk. “I was shocked at how people were living in some of the richest countries in the world, and thinking: western countries could do a lot better at welcoming refugees.”

The charity operates on the ethos of contact theory, which holds that prejudice can be reduced via positive interactions. “The most powerful way to shift attitudes is normally in areas where there’s limited contact. And the contact has to be done under the right conditions.” Like eating. “Food is a really good place to start in terms of seeing those positives, because it’s so visible.”

Participants tend to be those who’ve found the charity by chance or chosen it because it’s a cheap cooking class. “The group that we really say we’re targeting is people we refer to as the anxious middle. So they’re not really against migration, but they’re also not pro-migration.” They come “not actually because they want to help refugees, but because they’re interested in the food,” Thompson says. “There’s actually the potential to shift them more towards a pro-migration mindset… and one thing is clear: British people love migrant food.”

Most of the chefs’ recipes are passed down not through written text, but through intergenerational memory. When asked to write down the recipe, says Thompson, they often say, “This is just in my head, because my grandmother told me about it.” And just like their stories, the food tends to be memorable. Thompson tells me of the Pakistani chef’s carrot halwa. “It’s carrot, condensed milk, sugar and egg sprinkled on the top. And it’s actually really delicious.”

Through London’s large network of refugee and migrant support networks, many of the chefs are referred directly to Migrateful from other charities. “It really hasn’t been hard to find refugees and migrants who want to teach their cuisines,” says Thompson. And while the term “migrant” is incredibly broad, the chefs are typically those who need support with their employment and feel isolated.

During the cookery class, I can’t stop thinking of Thompson’s comment on isolation. As everyone sits around a table with high-heaped plates of Belitha’s Congolese flavours, I wonder if our family-style meal does anything to remedy her homesickness. She teaches us to plunge the fufu into the stews, encourages us to eat more when our plates run low and smiles as we sit together.