Africa: French Catering Company Gives Refugee Women a Recipe for Success

French catering company Bande de Cheffes employs women displaced from their own countries to cook food from around the world. The goal is to make the most of refugees’ talents while allowing them to earn their own living.

“I deliberately set up Bande de Cheffes as a company and not a non-profit organisation because I wanted to have a concrete social impact on the lives of a few female refugees,” said Charlotte Leluc, who founded the social enterprise in September 2021.

It started out working with two refugees and now employs eight, as well as between seven and 12 other staff.

Samah, 32, was among the first to join. She came to France from Sudan in 2017 and joined Bande de Cheffes two months after the company was created.

“I am so proud of what I have been able to accomplish here,” she told RFI. “I have learned so much; I can run a kitchen, prepare menus, develop new recipes.”

Samah, who has a degree in management information systems from Sudan’s University of Science and Technology, has new ambitions for her life in France.

“I want to become a successful businesswoman who helps people in need, like I was in the past,” she said.

“I want to be in a position where I can now give back.”

From Iganga to Paris

Gift came to Bande de Cheffes through, Emmaüs Solidarité, a French homelessness charity in June 2022, after a year and a half of struggling to make it in a country where she did not speak the language.

“I did not even know how to say ‘bonjour’ when I came here in 2019. I found the grammar so difficult, the ‘tu’, the ‘vous’. But I quickly took lessons and I was fearless in trying to survive: finding jobs as a nanny, looking for a place to sleep each night,” the 28-year old Ugandan told RFI.

Gift, who holds a certificate in hotel management and catering certificate from Uganda, went on to pass proficiency tests in French. She recently hosted a culinary workshop teaching a dozen French women how to make her signature cake recipe.

“Ultimately, my dream is to have my own pastry shop,” she said. The first step is to get into a two-year professional training programme in patisserie.

She also hopes to be reunited with her two children, who remain with her mother in her hometown of Iganga.

“I think of them everyday and I hope to be able to bring them over one day,” Gift said.

Brunch with a mission

“These women are not feeding off the system – they work, they earn an income, they contribute to the economy and pay taxes,” Leluc insists.

After having spent some 20 years working in the humanitarian sector, from the French Red Cross to the Social Economy ministry, Leluc felt that as a social entrepreneur, she could create jobs for exiled women who would otherwise find it difficult, if not impossible, to find work in France.

As the small company grows, she wants to use the profits to raise salaries and fund training for employees.

Most of its business comes from catering corporate and public events for clients including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), L’Oréal and the Paris Philharmonic.

Three times a month, it also serves a Sunday brunch at the stately Art-Deco Chaillot Theatre, overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

Sunday #brunch at @TheatreChaillot, in #Paris, with #BandeDeCheffes‘ delicious home made food prepared by female #refugees— zeenat hansrod (@zxnt) May 7, 2024

“The view is splendid and the food very good,” said Francesca, an Italian tourist visiting from Venice.

Her sister Corinne said they were also drawn by Bande de Cheffe’s social mission. “We liked the idea of supporting the women refugees who work here.”

At the next table, young French couple Kim and Mathieu agreed.

“We’d rather our money goes to a cause like this one,” Mathieu said. “And the view is an added bonus.”

Tastes of the world

Ana’s bacalhau gratin is a firm favourite with the brunchers.

The 33-year-old from Angola came to France in 2019 and has been working at Bande de Cheffes since February 2022. A secretary in Luanda, she now specialises in cooking savoury dishes.

Her salt cod gratin is just one of the recipes that the refugee chefs have contributed to the menu, which also includes Samah’s sweet coconut basbossas and Nataliia’s derounis, Ukrainian potato pancakes.

Nataliia was a midwife in Ukraine for 30 years. She fled to France in March 2022 because of the war with Russia and joined Bande de Cheffes in the following year thanks to an advert posted on Instagram.

“This is very different from my work back home in Kiev. It’s a new challenge, along with learning a new language,” the 57-year-old told RFI.

She can’t look for work as a midwife until she has passed the necessary language tests. But until then, she says, “I like working in this place with women from so many different countries”.

Georgette, from Côte d’Ivoire, agrees. “As a typical Ivoirian, I enjoy teasing and I love how we, all the girls, get along for a good laugh,” she told RFI.