A recipe for integration

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For student entrepreneurs at the RUG, food and community are the best ingredients for integration. The United Kitchen invites migrant women and locals to connect over a delicious meal.
By Megan Embry

As you step out of the wind and into the Eeterie De Globe, you are at once overwhelmed by a warm, spiced scent. It pushes its way out of the kitchen and saturates the bright dining room. What is that smell? Coriander; garlic; something lemony-sharp you can’t quite place. Guests crowd in behind you, damp with the afternoon rain. Everyone pauses briefly at the door to inhale, eyes half closed: the air has a taste.

RUG student Bas Sprenger de Rover brings you back to reality with a friendly handshake. ‘Welkom! Bas.’ He introduces himself, over and over. He ushers guests to long tables decorated with cheerful yellow linens; in the background, a lilting voice sings a song in Syrian that is at once mournful and joyful. People settle into their seats and the chatter rises to a pleasant, comfortable din. Sprenger de Rover is visibly pleased with the vibe.

Integration as a business model

The authentic Syrian meal on Sunday was the latest international pop-up dinner hosted by United Kitchen, a business launched by RUG students in 2016. Usually, United Kitchen dinners highlight three dishes by women with different cultural backgrounds. But this Sunday featured a special collaboration between United Kitchen and a local caterer, Syria Food.

Sprenger de Rover is one of four students who took over management of United Kitchen after the original founders graduated last year. Their business model aims at helping migrant women integrate in Groningen, he says. Migrant women tend to have very little access to social and professional networks. ‘Often, once these women pass a very basic Dutch test – which doesn’t qualify them to work – they disappear behind closed doors’, says Sprenger de Rover. ‘Usually the men are breadwinners, so they are the ones who go out, work, and meet people. Women don’t always get the same opportunities to integrate.’

The student founders saw a chance to address a societal problem and develop a business at the same time. ‘In many cultures, women are the ones who cook’, says Sprenger de Rover. ‘They are good at it, and importantly, they really enjoy it.’ So why not start a restaurant to celebrate those skills, and introduce women to each other?

In addition to hosting cooking events every two months, the United Kitchen also helps to empower women with workshops about cooking, presentation, CV skills, and more.

Lizet Riedel, a guest, steps outside between courses for a smoke. She says she is really inspired by the business model. ‘It’s a very nice initiative. When I retire this year I also want to do this kind of work. This is a special group. We have a lot of multicultural students, but they will find ways to integrate; it’s important for adult women to have a social outlet as well.’

‘Meet all the people’

Marie-Josée bustles from the kitchen to the dining room, her blue high-lighted hair a beacon of hospitality gliding between the tables as she delivers bowls of fragrant lentil soup and fried bread. She explains in flawless Dutch that she moved to the Netherlands from the Congo twenty-four years ago. She has been part of the United Kitchen since it started.

She has always been passionate about cooking and preparing food, she says. ‘It’s really my thing!’ But the United Kitchen gives her a way to do what she loves for a much larger community. This delights her. ‘My motto is: I want to meet ALL the people!’

And the women of United Kitchen aren’t the only ones making connections; Sprenger de Rover joined the team a year ago, hoping to develop some practical people skills. ‘As a student, you learn things only in a theoretical sense. But phoning someone you’ve never met before, or arranging meetings when you don’t know what is going to happen – that was actually scary to me!’ he admits.

In order to run a small business successfully, he says, you must build networks, advertise, and recruit employees and volunteers. ‘That has been a huge help to me – it has made me much more confident and professional. I’ve learned so much and I’m still learning every day.’

Recipes have histories

HR Manager Fenna Speerstra says that food is a positive and intimate way to learn about other cultures. Recipes don’t just have ingredients; they have histories. At a recent dinner, one woman shared the origin story of a delicate Philippine desert made from egg yolks: bricklayers at the time were using egg-whites for mortar during the construction of a huge church. Villagers had to figure out what to do with all of the leftover egg yolks. So they made dessert – a lot of dessert.

Stories like this ‘really encourage people to be open with each other’, says Speerstra.

And indeed, the room is packed with people and easy conversation. The diversity is surprising – Dutch and internationals, yes, but also young and old. It’s unusual, in this city, to see students having a meal with white-haired retirees they have only just met. But creating community is part of the model, Sprenger de Rover says.

‘We’ve experimented with different formats, but this time we had so many reservations, we were practically forced into these long communal tables – it seems to be working really well!’

It turns out that sharing a meal and appreciating other cultures is a delicious combo – and the hallmark recipe of United Kitchen.

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