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How Modena is Nurturing Migrant Female Chefs

03 May, 2022
Jessica Rosval,  Zouhaira Mahmoudi and Caroline Caporossi sat amongst upturned logs

Jessica Rosval,  Zouhaira Mahmoudi and Caroline Caporossi

Rosval and Caporossi met through Bottura’s Food for Soul project and immediately connected with a shared empathy and the energy to help their community through food. “The response has been overwhelming. The immense amount of support that has poured through from our community, it’s been such a motivating factor and so heart-warming,” says Rosval.

“After the pandemic the restaurant industry is facing a global workforce shortage. Right now, we’re not only providing value to the women who come through the program, but also value to the local restaurant community in Moderna too,” adds Caporossi.

The restaurant is the latest project of the Association for the Integration of Women (AIW), a non-profit organisation dedicated to the integration of migrant women in Modena, where small groups of women, aged between 25 and 35 years old, undertake a four-month programme of courses on cooking and cultural integration. The programme aims to train 16 to 20 migrant women every year to become industry professionals. They are currently on the second group of cohorts, where the vibe is really that of a sisterhood. "We’ve created amazing friendships as well along the way. It’s just been really such a fulfilling experience for all of us involved," says Rosval.

Team of women at Roots restaurant

Credit: Gloria Soverini

“It’s a beautiful experience and gave us a starting point to create or realise our dream. I work there with the group collaborating together. Each one with their own character but we go to work with a lot of love,” says Mahmoudi.

During the day, Roots serves as a co-working space, and opens as a restaurant for dinner, from Thursday to Sunday, and lunch at weekends. The menu is a multicultural fusion of dishes inspired by the home countries of the all-female team, including Tunisia, Cameroon, Guinea, and Ghana. The women are encouraged to express themselves, where they come from and who they are as individuals, as well as the journey that they’re on right now through their food. Cooking, sitting down, eating together and talking about the dishes that best represent them is the first step to creating the menu, explains Rosval.

An internal shot of light and airy dining space at Roots

Egusi soup, a typical North West African stew, is served with baccalà mantecato as a nod to its traditional iteration with fish. Bitter greens are replaced with locally grown Swiss chard and spinach, and the stew is thickened using blended melon seeds, which has been a revelation for Rosval. The culinary director has also become a dab hand at making couscous under Mahmoudi’s guidance. Although most dishes are a far departure from the glossy egg pasta and tortelloni Modena is famous for, they are rooted in local ingredients. For example, Mahmoudi makes traditional Tunisian recipes but uses Parmigiano Reggiano in them. “So let’s talk about cultural contamination and letting your heart be open to that,” says Rosval.

Dishes on the table at Root restaurant

Credit: Gloria Soverini

“I was making mlewi the other week, typical Tunisian bread, and I think that what that attests to is just how much there really is out there. With a curious mind and an open spirit, you can really go out there and really absorb the world in this beautiful way, and we’re doing that through food."

Jessica Rosval teaching students at Roots

Credit: Gloria Soverini

While Rosval comes from a country with limited culinary tradition, and has contemporary culinary training, she is discovering the the importance of tradition in food through the initiative. In fact, both Rosval and Caporossi are quick to admit that this is as much a learning process for them as it is for their students. “It’s just been a really crazy experience in terms of how much we’ve also been able to learn. We went off saying, now we’re going to teach our skills. We’ve grown so much and learnt so much and absorbed so much,” says Rosval.

“Working with chefs like Zouhaira, Mercy and Fanta, who are really showing me traditional recipes and their traditional approaches to cooking. They’re so deeply rooted in that recipe with those ingredients as they are. And that again is really exposing me to the importance of protecting those traditions, and it’s again about finding that balance myself."

Listen to Mercy's story:

When it comes to kitchen culture and embracing diversity in the kitchen, not only from a cultural but also a gender perspective, Rosval believes that addressing the 'human factor' in kitchens begins here, with education and training. "How can we change our industry for the better? How can we go out and break bad habits that exist in the restaurant world? We do that with education. And that education is where we’re starting at right now."

"What we can communicate through food is really limitless. It’s a vehicle for this communication that is just astounding."

"The mutual respect that we can show each other in the kitchen. I think that this project is really all-encompassing of all these incredible values that we really strongly believe in, and that we really want to promote at an international level," says Rosval.

If the aim of the project is for migrant women to realise their full potential and live the life they had dreamed of, Mahmoudi is an early testament to their success.

"It seems my dream of being a professional chef is now not far off. Before it was something inconceivable. To realise my dream I just have to keep working hard," says Mahmoudi, a mother of three, who is proof of the project that allows migrant women to take root and flourish.

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