Recipes for success

A new generation of chefs in Italy – young refugees and migrants - embrace and enrich the country’s food culture

Codi Trigger
Fatou Sanneh (17) behind the coffee bar at the café where she works in Palermo, Italy.
UNICEF/UN0264432/De Luigi VII Photo

25 March 2019

I usually plan my holidays around food. I hate to plan, but this I enjoy: researching local specialties, finding small restaurants, going out of my way for a good meal.

I never thought that my recent work assignment in Italy would have food so centrally woven throughout. Sure, I knew I would eat (lots of pasta), but in a rush, exhausted after long days of work. But I didn’t expect to be talking about it so much during working hours, during interviews.

Many young people are keen to get into the kitchens of Italy. The interesting part is, none of them is Italian.

First, I met Fatou in Palermo, the capital of Sicily.

Fatou Sanneh (17) inspects the final preparations before the lunch rush in the café’s kitchen where she works.
UNICEF/UN0264429/De Luigi VII Photo
Fatou Sanneh (17) inspects the final preparations before the lunch rush in the café’s kitchen where she works.

For Fatou, who’s 17, cooking brings her back to her childhood, when her mother taught her how to cook and let her prepare dinner for the family. Fatou’s a refugee from The Gambia and before arriving in Italy, she was detained in Libya. Cooking for her is pure, cathartic.

Fatou was born to be the boss. If you don’t get that vibe immediately, no matter – you’ll see it on her necklace: “F QUEEN”. After school, she picks up shifts in the front of the house at Moltivolti, a popular café and workspace that’s frequented by locals and migrants alike. But she aspires to be in the kitchen running the show. She gives us a tour of the place, and we head to the back just before the lunch rush. She inspects the dishes carefully. Tastes one. “Yeah, I could do better!” she says mischievously to the cooks. We’re ushered out amid roars of friendly provocation.

Then I met Omar in Naro, a small village in the middle of Sicily.

Omar (17) on his balcony at the reception centre where he stays in the small village of Naro in Sicily, Italy.
UNICEF/UN0264452/De Luigi VII Photo
Omar (17) on his balcony at the reception centre where he stays in the small village of Naro in Sicily, Italy.

Naro is a small sleepy village in the middle of Sicily, about an hour north of Agrigento, a city on the southern coast. Naro’s population has shrunk by half over the past 20 years, but now Omar and other young migrants have been transferred to reception centres located there. Cooking allows Omar to decompress. He enjoys the art of it. It’s also a sure-fire way to bring people together – which to him is just as important. Food brings people together, like family. “I like when people come together,” he says. “Food allows us to be together.”

“I like when people come together. Food allows us to be together.”

When you migrate by yourself, it’s important to find a place where you belong. Omar came to Italy from Senegal where he had family problems – he was forced to drop out of school to work. Here in Italy, he’s back in school and has his eye on an apprenticeship for young aspiring migrant chefs at a popular restaurant in Agrigento that celebrates Sicilian-Senegalese fusion food.

We attend a UNICEF-JA Italia project for refugees, migrants and Italian young people. The guest speaker just so happens to be the owner of this restaurant. He tells the class how people often talk of social integration as one culture absorbing another. But, in fact, it’s an active exchange of cultures. Omar sits with rapt attention, and is the first and only one to ask an unprompted question.

Finally, I met Momo in Vittuone, a suburban village of Milan.

Mohamed “Momo” Elsayed (18) shows off his culinary skills as he prepares pasta alla Norma, a typical Sicilian pasta dish, for dinner in Vittuone, a suburb of Milan in northern Italy.
UNICEF/UN0264483/De Luigi VII Photo
Mohamed “Momo” Elsayed (18) shows off his culinary skills as he prepares pasta alla Norma, a typical Sicilian pasta dish, for dinner in Vittuone, a suburb of Milan in northern Italy.

Momo migrated to Italy from Egypt when he was just 12. He had no idea how to cook and learned out of necessity at a reception centre in Palermo. “The first time [I made dinner for my housemates] it was good,” he remembers. “The second time it was even better. So, then everyone said: ‘Okay, you are the cook.’” Now, after having been the first migrant in Italy to be transferred to a foster care family, Momo’s already top in his cooking class at school and works at a restaurant on the weekends.

I try to impress him with my favourite Egyptian food: koshari (rice, lentils and elbow pasta with a vinegary, spicy tomato sauce). He scoffs. “It’s good, but I don’t cook that.”

“I only cook Italian.”

He insists on cooking for me and asks what I’d like him to make. Easy: pasta alla norma, a Sicilian pasta with fried eggplant swimming in a tomato sauce and topped with shavings of ricotta salata. I had been eating it every day. Momo smiles. He lived in Sicily for years before moving in with his foster family in the north. So, he is happy to cook southern. But he does it his way, adding in a few unexpected textural elements (apples for crunch!). I’m pleasantly surprised to have a new take on my favourite.

Momo’s foster parents are a good fit as they also enjoy cooking – although they’re very happy to have someone making dinner every night. “But we have differing schools of thought,” Stefano, his foster father says seriously, with a twinkle in his eye. Take, for example, fish. “Momo likes to gut and prepare it. I like to put it whole in the oven.” Momo feigns horror, and everyone laughs.

I defy you to name a better country to come of age in, culinary speaking. The rich produce. The subtlety of simplicity. The vast range of dishes. The unquenchable thirst to gather around the table and gesture wildly. It’s simply sublime.

When you’re living on your own as a young migrant, however, it’s not so easy. And in Italy, there are thousands of young migrants. According to the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Italy had about 15,000 unaccompanied and separated migrant children in January 2018. Every four out of five were between 16 and 17 years old. Why is that significant? Because in December 2018, the government passed a decree that severely limits humanitarian protection and access to services for migrants and refugees. On 1 January 2019, about 7,500 unaccompanied minors had turned 18 and saw their social inclusion halted by the decree.

Nobody really knows what will happen. Least of all these teens, who, although it’s always in the back of their mind, put on a brave face and get back to business: food. You feel their passion. It’s really there. They know this is a solid profession where they can find work wherever they may end up.

They’re rearing to go. They just need a chance.