How a Pop Up Restaurant Helped Me Start a New Life

Mazi Mas is a pop up restaurant bringing together migrant women from around the world. Azeb Woldemichael is one of them.

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May 18 2014, 9:24am

Mazi Mas is a pop up restaurant bringing together migrant women from around the world. Azeb Woldemichael is one of them.

Azeb Woldemichael is doing prep for the evening's dinner service when I meet her at The Russet in Hackney, London – the current home of roving pop-up restaurant Mazi Mas – where she is a chef. Born and raised in Ethiopia's sprawling capital, Addis Ababa, Azeb spent most of her adult life living in Turin, Italy before coming to London in 2011 in search of a better education for her son. As a teenager, Azeb would watch her mother cook for her large family, picking up the culinary skills she would later use as a mother herself. Living in Italy, Azeb also became a dab hand at making lasagne, and worked in both Ethiopian and Italian restaurants during her 17 years there.

But on coming to London, Azeb needed to find work. After completing a course in food hygiene she was introduced to Niki Kopcke, the founder of Mazi Mas. For the past three years that is where she has worked, recreating those dishes that were so familiar to her as a child in Ethiopia.

"The food I cook at Mazi Mas is the food I grew up with," Azeb tells me, perfectly summing up the sentiment at the heart of the restaurant that, as Niki says, "is all about celebrating home cooking." Indeed, the very name of the restaurant is Greek for 'eat with us'.

"I find the kind of food that people cook at home much more interesting than a lot of food that you get in restaurants," Niki continues. "I think other people feel that way too, so I thought why not create a restaurant where we're serving that kind of food?" It definitely makes good business sense – who doesn't enjoy an authentic home-cooked meal? – but that's only half of the story behind the creation of Mazi Mas. The other reason Kopcke wanted to set up her restaurant came from the desire to find a way to create work for migrant women, enabling them to earn money, share skills, better their English and gain – as well as give – the kind of support that comes from being part of a tight knit community. How better to achieve those goals than with food?

2nd image_Azeb Moldmichael

Illustration by Hisham Bharoocha. Photography by Mara Klein.

"Mazi Mas came about as a desire to assign a literal financial value to women's care work," says Niki. "The restaurant has been going since 2012, but the seed of the idea had been evolving as a concept for a long time before that." That seed was no doubt planted by Niki's godmother and childhood nanny, Maria. Not only did Maria instil in Niki a passion for food from a young age, but it was her struggle to find work as a Greek woman living in New York that would later inspire her goddaughter to help other migrant women in similar situations.

"I grew up in Greek culture and so food is everything, I'm crazy about food," says Niki. "Fundamentally, Mazi Mas is a business because I identified a gap in the market, but it was also initiated on the want to fulfill those social objectives."

Azeb is responsible for cooking different kinds of vegetable wot – a slow cooked stew, often seasoned with berbere, a fiery Ethiopian chilli spice mix. Alongside heavily spiced red lentils, Azeb prepares traditional beetroot and potato and cabbage and carrot wot, all served on in- jera – a type of sourdough pancake that acts as both the plate and eating utensil for the stew. But hers is not the only meal – or cuisine – on the Mazi Mas menu. There are nine chefs employed at Mazi Mas, each from a different country, and each bringing their own local flavours to the table. Roberta, from Brazil, makes her traditional black bean, sausage and bacon stew while Zohreh is responsible for the Iranian saffron chicken.

"I have learned lots of different types of cooking here because we have Brazilian, Turkish, Iranian and Senegalese women," Azeb tells me, adding that for New Year she cooked from the Mazi Mas menu for her new friends. "It's really friendly here," she says, beaming.

And while this is certainly one of the main purposes of a place like Mazi Mas – the creation of community and friendships – so too is it about the sharing of knowledge. And not just for the women who work there. "It's so important to preserve these domestic recipes," says Niki. "They're part of our social and cultural heritage and we're at risk of losing them."

While Azeb is happy as a chef at Mazi Mas, her dream is to one day open her own small Ethiopian eatery. "My idea is that I will open my little restaurant," she says. "But I love working with Mazi Mas. Even if I did that, I'd still want to work here too."

In collaboration with Ford.