It’s a bright and clear day as we walk through the Elephant & Castle estate towards Migrateful’s test kitchen. Established by it’s founder Jess Thompson (following her experiences working with asylum seekers and refugees across Europe) Migrateful aims to provide a safe space for refugees and asylum seekers alike as they await their work permits for the UK, providing them with legal support, English lessons and employability training in return for public cooking classes hosted the beneficiaries themselves.
The test Kitchen (where Jess and the Migrateful team hold their weekly cooking and planning meetings) is a mere stones throw from the area’s condemned shopping centre, a once vibrant collection of bars, restaurants and shops, which has been a focal point for the areas Latin community as long as anyone can remember. With it’s fate sealed and demolition plan approved, the building seems to provide a stark reminder of the changing landscapes of London, with ethnic communities becoming easily displaced, falling victim to surging prices and regeneration, struggling to find representation in a very confused and uncertain pre-brexit Britain.
Joining us on our visit is North London based R&B vocalist Desta French. Born to an Italian father and Columbian mother in Camden, Desta’s unique brand of music has been turning heads over the past 18 months. Her most recent offering, the ‘Immigracious EP’ saw her drawing on everything from 90’s R&B and Hip Hop to soul classics, infused with a vibrant infectious contemporary twist, moving from electric and neo-soul sounds to the oscillating rhythms and grooves of Latin America. A first generation immigrant herself, she’s very familiar with the challenges facing those arriving in a new country.
After watching Jess lead a brief catch with the 30-40 class participants, we sit down with Jess, Desta and one of their longest active participants, Nigerian chef Betty – who after coming to the UK at age 17 has been waiting 16 years for her right to work in the UK.
EAT HEAR: So, to kick things off – what was your favourite meal as kid?
Desta: My Dad was definitely the best cook – it’s a bit embarrassing really, as I try not to eat pork nowadays, but when I was kid, I would just sit and eat Salami for hours. My Gran from Columbia would come and stay with us for long periods of time and do lots of cooking, there was always beans and Chicarons on the go, so my mum got away with not cooking too much most of the time. My Dad actually also worked in a restaurant in Finsbury park.
Betty: I grew up in Edo State Nigeria, and when I was young my favourite food was fruit. My dad was a farmer and would always bring home pineapple for us. All the kids and my friends would come home from school and always look forward to it. It was so juicy and delicious and reminds me of summer afternoons, it still reminds me of back home. It’s still one of my favourites.
Jess: My mum always made pancakes every Sunday morning, which was the highlight of my week!
EAT HEAR: So Desta you grew up in Camden, is there a big Latino population or community there?
Desta: Not really, I think Camden is more of the strays, then areas like Seven Sisters and Elephant & Castle are more concentrated.
EAT HEAR: Would your family come to areas like Elephant & Castle for more Columbian / Latin food / ingredients?
Desta: Yeah we would, for certain grocery shopping etc – specific ingredients. My parents tended to do their own thing rather than fully hang out with the community as it’s really small and people know each other’s business too much
EAT HEAR: I’ve always found it really interesting how we have this perception nowadays that the world is so globalised, and that we can walk into any supermarket and get whatever we want, but we forget it hasn’t always been that way. If you’d just landed in London from somewhere else, you’d have to figure out where to go to get your ingredients from – you might have to travel across the city to different pockets of London. Have you found that’s still the case with the work you do with Migrateful?