10 SEPTEMBER 2019 / Mastering the Art of French Cooking is Just the Beginning for these Women

Haute cuisine is not an obvious ingredient for a recipe for social and economic empowerment. But Women & Top Chefs, a project of Marseilles-based Association Départ’s La Table de Cana organization, turns the rarified environment of elite kitchens into incubators for social progress.

Each year, 12 women are empowered to attain economic self-sufficiency by training with chefs in the best kitchens around. Support extends beyond the kitchen with access to counseling and coaching and assistance with housing and childcare for participants. The program lasts nine months, and three-quarters of participants have found a job within six months of completing it. A full quarter of program alumni go on to start their own businesses in the restaurant and catering industry.

Mejda Al-Ibrahim from near Raqqa in Syria was an engineer by trade. When her family left Syria to seek refuge in France, however, she was unable to continue working as an engineer and applied to take part in Women & Top Chefs. After completing the program, Medja and her family opened a Syrian restaurant, called Ashourya, in Marseilles in 2017.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) staff had a chance to meet Medja and visit her well-reviewed restaurant earlier this year. SNF provides support to Association Départ for the project, the current season of which kicks off on September 12.

The program is the brainchild of Alain Ducasse, one of the most prolifically Michelin starred chefs in the world. Since originating in Marseilles, widespread interest in the project has extended it to other cities around France, including Bordeaux, Montpellier, Nice, Paris, Pays d’Arles, and Strasbourg.

Women & Top Chefs isn’t the only program using the appeal of fine dining as a vehicle for social advancement. Schedia Home, a space opened this summer in Athens, trains older adults without previous culinary experience (aside from the one prerequisite of knowing how to boil an egg) to prepare a menu crafted by Lefteris Lazarou, the first Greek chef to be awarded a Michelin star. Schedia Home is an offshoot of Schedia street magazine, sold by unemployed and homeless residents of Athens, and SNF has supported both initiatives.