Q&A: Mazi Mas founder Niki Kopcke on how food can make a difference

We love food, and we love it even more when it makes a difference to people's lives. We chat to Mazi Mas founder Niki Kopcke about why food is the best way of learning about new cultures – and why it's never been more important

Dishes at Mazi Mas

We're big believers that food is one of the most accessible – and most enjoyable – ways of learning about new cultures, so we were thrilled to learn of pop-up restaurant Mazi Mas, where you can scoff mouthwatering food from Ethiopia, Iran and Nicaragua all in one sitting. Founder Nikandre Kopcke is working with refugee women to offer them employment, welcome them to our city and help them realise their dreams within the food industry. As Mazi Mas’ residency at the Ovalhouse draws to a close and it looks to its new home, Hackney's The Russet, for the new year, Niki chats to us about the chefs, their dishes, and why food is so important in light of current events.

What is Mazi Mas and how does it work?

Mazi Mas is a restaurant that employs and trains refugee women, serving their home cooking. It's been going for exactly three years. We operate both commercially as a restaurant and then charitably as a training programme, and an incubator programme as well, helping women launch their own food businesses. We're doing that on a fairly informal basis at the moment, but we're hoping to develop that into a more structured incubator programme in the next year.

Did you have experience in charity work?

I finished my masters in gender development and decided that I wasn't interested in doing anything that it qualified me for. I was much more interested in doing something very practical, and essentially Mazi Mas was my way of developing a solution to a problem that I saw and had researched throughout my masters, that women's care work is not valued in the world.

Women are responsible for raising and feeding all of us, but that work is never quantified because it occurs in the home, and I was interested in assigning an actual financial value to that work that women do, and celebrating them for it. And so that's how I came up with Mazi Mas, and I fell into business quite accidentally. Mazi Mas is a business, not a charity – we are a registered community interest company, which means that we do have a social mission, but we trade as any other company does. Our aim is to make a profit, so we can plough that back into the business and we can expand the training that we can give our chefs.

Mazi Mas is a business, not a charity

How do you find the chefs that you work with?

They come to us through self-referral and referral from places like community, women's and refugees' rights organisations. We're embedded within the network of charitable organisations that work with people close to the ground and they refer chefs. Women are increasingly referring themselves because they've heard about us through a friend.

How many women do you have in the kitchen at any one time and how long do they stay with you before moving on?

At the moment we're regularly working with a total of six chefs in the kitchen. One of them is our kitchen manager, Roberta, and she's from Brazil. The other five come from Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, Peru, and our newest chef is from Nicaragua. Many of them have gone on to other work and then come back, and others are still looking for work or developing their business ideas with us.

We have two chefs at the moment who are doing that. One is our Ethiopian chef Azeb, who wants to set up an Ethiopian restaurant in London, and we're helping her develop her business plan for that. The other is our Nicaraguan chef Saira, who makes a wonderful fresh cheese that we use in the restaurant, and she's been selling that cheese informally – selling the cheese to friends and family – and we're helping her scale that up into a formal business and scale up production so that eventually she can rely on that for her income.

All of the chefs who work with us at the moment have gone on to some other form of paid work, whether it's been a longer term thing or one-off events, but the goal is to move everyone on either to full-time employment, or to set up their own businesses, within a year.

Why is it important to the women, other than the financial reasons?

I think truly more important than the income is the community that it creates. You have to imagine, if you've been rejected for a job for five years or more, like most of the women that we work with have been, it does terrible things to your self-confidence.

We work with a lot of single mothers who have come here without anyone, without any support networks, no way to insert themselves into London, which is a very hard place at the best of times. Mazi Mas brings them that community and friendship and self-confidence. Their kids come to the restaurant and see what they're doing and are proud of their mothers. What that gives them in terms of their relationship with their children and all that stuff is unquantifiable and I think it's most important, and that's what they say as well.

Can you tell me about your godmother?

My godmother basically raised me, and is one of the most important people in my life. She was an immigrant herself in the States for nearly 20 years, which is how she met my parents and met me and became my godmother when I was three months old, and she dreamt of opening a bakery. All of her friends and US community were behind her, but she had a stereotypical Greek husband who believed that women don't go into business, and so she was never able to realise her dream.

When I moved to London, I was volunteering in kitchens because I've always been really passionate about food and the food industry. I met many, many migrant women who reminded me of her with their dreams of opening a little café, restaurant, takeaway service or bakery, and so I set up Mazi Mas in order to help other women do what she wasn't able to do.

You said you grew up in New York – why did you set up Mazi Mas in London?

I was living in London at the time, and because I moved over when I was 17, I just don't know New York in the sense that I know London. By the time I'd finished my masters and bopped around trying different things in the year after my masters, I'd accumulated contacts and networks. I knew what the food scene was like in London, I knew what the social enterprise scene was like in London, so I was much more conversant in society here than I was in New York and yes, it just so happened that it seemed like a really good place to do it because of the incredible hyperdiversity here.

It was also a really great moment of people being very, very interested in food all of a sudden, this creeping food revolution that's changed the way we eat in the UK, which is really amazing, and at the same time, social enterprise is becoming massive thing and people were very interesting in supporting projects like mine. Recently there's been a great interest in migration and how we can create opportunities for people who are part of the migratory flows that we're seeing. So it was sort of a perfect storm here and I could sense it was a good place to start.

What's the most popular dish on your menu and where does it come from?

It's probably Roberta's Brazilian pão de queijo, which is cheese bread made with cassava flour. They're amazing little things, like little pillows that have a chalky, crispy exterior, but when you bite into them, because of the cassava flour and the cheese inside, they're just wonderfully melty and amazing. The texture is something very, very unusual and pretty much no one who comes to the restaurant has had them before, but everybody leaves saying, "Oh my god, where can I get more of those?" So that's the recipe that we're asked for most frequently, and Roberta is very loathe to part with it!

One night the dishes will be Iranian, the next they'll be Ethiopian

How do you develop the menu?

There is definitely a menu development process. We start that process very early, in the trials when new chefs come to us. We do couple of trials to get a sense of their repertoire, what they cook and how they cook, and we look at a range of dishes and then it's a very collaborative process. We think about what's best on the menu and what's maybe a little bit too out-there for British palates, thinking about cost and what can be made on the scale that we need to be making it.

We have two parts to our menu. The first part is comprised entirely of mezze and each of our chefs contributes to that, so when we do the development at the beginning with our chefs, we're looking for one dish that can go on that menu. The mains change every day, depending on who is in the kitchen. One night it'll be Zohreh's Iranian mains, the next night it'll be Azeb's Ethiopian mains and those are also dishes that we trial. We don't do a lot of tweaking to the dishes themselves, apart from presentation. We try to faithfully present the food that these women have been cooking in their homes for their families. I think that's what's quite special about it.

Were you interested in food before you set it up?

Yes! I've always been into food since I was tiny little girl. If you grow up in a Greek household, food is constantly around you. Food is the way that people communicate love; food is the way that you bring people together – it's just in everything. I've been obsessed with food as long as I can remember. What's more, I have a mixed background, my father is German and my mother is Greek, so we spent a lot of time in those countries, and I spent a lot of time in France and I went to an international school, so my experience of other cultures has always been through food and I think that's really where it came from.

That's what I really think is so remarkable about food – it's a window onto other cultures, and it's a way into other parts of the world and other ways of living, and because I had a lot of that very young, I think I became really excited by it early on. My mother still jokes that my sister's comfort food is sushi because that's what, as a six year old, she was exposed to. I've always been curious about the world and I think food is the way that you can satiate that curiosity.

Food is a way into other parts of the world and other ways of living

Are you a good cook and what do you cook at home?

I've also worked as a chef, so that helps. And I love cooking. I much prefer cooking to going out. I'm very interested in cooking seasonally, so we have a veg box and I just cook whatever's in that. I'm always influenced by the people cooking around me, and that means that now it's the chefs in the restaurant and if I've been out to eat, I'm influenced by what they cook. My fallback is always Greek food because that's what I grew up with, and those are the flavours that I'm most comfortable with. If I want comfort food, I'll probably cook my godmother's roast chicken, which is just really, really simple, with olive oil, lemon, garlic and oregano, but it's amazing.

Have you thought about expanding the Mazi Mas model?

We already have – it's now started in Sydney. It's been running there for about a year and a half and it's going really well. It's still on an events-based model, running pop-ups every couple of months, and it works exclusively with asylum seekers, because in Australia asylum seekers have the right to work on bridging visas, whereas of course we can't do that here because asylum seekers don't have the right to work.

We've got a team in place in Berlin, and that's developing slowly. After that, for the time being, not any more, because I'm working on developing a formal structure for social franchising. So hopefully yes, we'll eventually replicate all over the world, but we need to develop how that's going to happen before we open any more branches.

Mazi Mas is at Ovalhouse, 52-54 Kennington Oval, SE11 5SW until 19 December 2015 and will reopen at The Russet, 17 Amhurst Terrace, E8 2BT on 18 January;