"It was very difficult finding a job with my age and having children," Roberta Siao tells us. We're sat in the backyard of a café in East London's Victoria Park. The softly spoken Sao Paolo native is explaining to us how she came to be involved in a porject that goes by the name of Mazi Mas. As she sips her black Americano she recalls how, after meeting her English husband in the UK whilst on holiday, she had quit her stressful banking job and focussed on having a child. Roberta thought it would be easy to get back into work. It proved to be quite the opposite. But she wasn't ready to give up. She tells us: "I said [to myself] I'm going to fight. I love cooking so I thought I'm going to do something different." It was whilst volunteeering at a kitchen in 2012 that Roberta met Niki Kopcke who was doing an apprenticeship there whilst studying for her masters degree in gender studies. Realising there that were many migrant women in a similar position, the idea for Mazi Mas was born.
What is Mazi Mas? Mazi Mas is Greek for "with us" and alludes to the inclusiveness that the team have managed to create. Many women arrive in the country, seeking solice and escape from war, abusive partners and other difficulties. A lot of these women are from cultures that expect women to stay at home and look after children, or they may come from a highly educated background with a university degree, but one that isn't transferable to our workforce. "The problem is...they totally disappear," Roberta says with concern. "I call them the 'invisible army'. They are warriors. They are amazing. They are fighters. They are just invisible. They [usually] have a very good education in their country."
Roberta and her team take on seven women per cohort, with each cohort lasting for six months. They provide them with all the training necessary for six weeks, including the food certificate and kitchen skills, as well as team work and confidence building. They then get to work for six months, paid at the London Living Wage of £9.75, catering for events that could incluxe a wedding of over 500 people or smaller office parties. Each woman provides their own menu- starter, mian and dessert and they then each learn the dishes of their team members. The countries that these women originate from are well know for their unique and delicious cuisine- cuisine that's not found in restaurants over here. Dishes bursting with vibrant hues of red, yellow, and orange. Some of the chefs who are currently working with Mazi Mas are from Iran, Ecuador and Peru- countries well known for their exotic food. Roberta tells me with glee about a heavenly sounding Iranian quince and plum stew- a dish that had her running all over London hunting for quince. A task that happens quite often as the ingredients for such dishes aren't found in your average Tesco Express.