Syrian refugees cooking up a storm in Toronto restaurants

A unique project cooked up by a Toronto chef is proving the old adage that food is the great unifier. Newcomer Kitchen is the work of Len Senater, the owner of a popular breakfast and brunch spot on College Street called The Depanneur.

Chef hopes Newcomer Kitchen concept spreads to other Toronto restaurants

She's in charge! Zubaida Hageesa, a 73-year-old grandmother, led a group of Syrian refugee women in making a traditional meal at Butler's Pantry Wednesday as part of the Newcomer Kitchen project.

A unique project cooked up by a Toronto chef is proving the old adage that food is the great unifier.

Newcomer Kitchen is the work of Len Senater, the owner of a popular breakfast and brunch spot on College Street called The Depanneur. 

Senater told CBC News he never liked eating in hotels so when he heard about the Syrian refugees stranded in Toronto hotels for weeks at a time, he decided to offer them space in his restaurant kitchen to cook meals for their families.

The goodwill gesture is slowly spreading.

On Wednesday afternoon, Atique Azad, a friend of Senater's who owns Butler's Pantry in Mirvish Village, opened his restaurant's kitchen to several Syrian refugees.

Zubaida Hageesa, a 73-year-old grandmother, has wholeheartedly embraced the idea.

Married at age 15, the mother of 11 has spent a lifetime cooking communally for her family and is the natural leader in the restaurant kitchen.

On Wednesday, eight women — all refugees — surrounded the stainless steel counter in the Pantry's kitchen rolling cabbage leaves, made silky from boiling, around a stuffing of beef and rice.
The women prepare 50 meals a week of traditional Syrian food. The meals are available for pickup or through delivery for free via Foodora, if you live within three kilometres of The Depanneur. (CBC)

Senater told CBC News that Newcomer Kitchen has been an eye-opening experience.

He said the tradition of cooking with a large group "is built right into the recipe.  There are certain dishes you might not make unless you can get a whole group together. 

"I've learned that Syria is not a celebrity chef-led culture; it's understood that the women, the mothers and the grandmothers are real holders of the tradition," he explained. "A lot of that tradition has been held for 100 years or longer and there's an enormouos amount of cultural history and pride and heritage built into these recipes."

Senater said kickstarting Newcomer Kitchen was like "pushing a boulder up a mountain.

"Some of them have never been on a subway or on an escalator. Some of them have many, many kids, and there are childcare requirements. The real challenge hasn't been the food, the food has been the fun and easy part," he said.

Senater feels Newcomer Kitchen can be "replicated anywhere someone wants to open the doors of their kitchen.  It's something that could happen in any city in the world."
All hands on deck. A group of Syrian refugee women prepare a traditional meal at Butler's Pantry in Mirvish Village Wednesday.


Mary Wiens

Journalist/ Producer | Metro Morning

Mary Wiens is a veteran broadcaster and a regular on Metro Morning. Her wide-ranging beat includes stories that are sometimes tragic, often funny, occasionally profound and always human. Work that is often honoured with RTDNA awards (The Association of Electronic Journalists). One of her favourite places - Yonge Street. "It's the heart and soul of Toronto," says Wiens. "Toronto's Main Street!"

With files from Errol Nazareth


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