Rubbing his hands briskly as he braved the unusually cold Sydney winter morning chill was FoodLab’s Managing Director, Jamie Loveday. He was on a tour of Sydney Markets, alongside migrant and refugee chefs and caterers who are our next generation of entrepreneurs in Sydney’s food scene.
It was a typical day at the markets, brimming with activity and a special day for Jamie and the team of ten chefs and caterers from FoodLAB Sydney, a not-for-profit kitchen incubator. The group – all migrant food entrepreneurs – were keen to soak up the atmosphere and meet the local producers who are pivotal to their business.
“Our partnership with Sydney Markets enables our entrepreneurs to access a lot of the growers here, a lot of the wholesale products of fresh produce, and to form relationships with the buyers who are a really integral part of their business,” explains Jamie.
“That sort of support means that our entrepreneurs can become flourishing business owners, contribute to a really beautiful food scene in Sydney, are able to contribute to what they love doing and what they’re passionate about, and hopefully, one day, will start employing people for themselves.”
Thanks to the partnership between FoodLAB and Sydney Markets, Syrian chef Racha Abou Alchamat, Zimbabwe chef Alick Malewa and Melinda Essey from The Messey Table have become patrons at Paddy’s Markets where they regularly provide cooking demonstrations.
“Sydney Markets is giving us all the support and help that we need, and they are lovely people,” said Racha from Racha Syrian Kitchen. “What I love about the markets is you can get everything you need here, and everything is so fresh.”
Melinda Essey says her involvement with Sydney Markets has brought her career opportunities that she never dreamed would be possible such as appearing on national TV to talk about her passion for fresh food.
“Through the FoodLAB, I was connected with Sydney Markets and that has been a career changer for me,” says Melinda, who offers cooking classes and experiences for those looking to lower the impact of their carbon footprint through a sustainable and seasonal way of eating.
Alick Malewa from African Food Feasts said Sydney Markets has helped him showcase his love for African food to a wider audience with his regular cooking demonstrations. This includes African food evenings at Paddy’s Markets. “It’s also helped me overcome the challenge of finding fresh Taro and Plantains which are both popular in African cuisine. It’s always better to use fresh rather than frozen ingredients.”
Mother and daughter team Blanca Perera and Blanca Mejia, who own Olotl Traditional Mexican Food company, also said Sydney Markets were key to their success because they needed to be able to buy specialist ingredients such as cactus, chile poblano and tomatillos to make authentic Mexican dishes.
For Lebanese chef Mani Darwiche from Emba Kitchen, the visit to the markets was a chance to simply soak up the vibrant atmosphere and meet the producers.
As Jamie said: “If you are coming to Australia from a different country or even if you just don’t know the food scene, the ability to form relationships with the producers and the people who are bringing your beautiful products alive is really important. It can be very daunting as a food business owner to enter a scene like this with a thousand forklifts in your face. So it makes a huge difference to be able to understand how it all works here at Sydney Markets, and where to go to for your specialist products because we are dealing with many different cultures. We’ve got a Racha Syrian Kitchen doing Syrian food, someone doing Malaysian food, we’ve got Mexican, tamales and African food as well. So, it’s a real hotch-potch of culture here!
“To them, our partnership with Sydney Markets means they can fast track what can often take years to form relationships with the producers.”
FoodLAB provides a range of technical assistance including connecting entrepreneurs to accountants, branding specialists, website designers and wholesale producers. It’s in the process of fitting out a custom-built kitchen which will enable its entrepreneurs to get access to commercial equipment necessary to scale their businesses at really affordable rates.
“It means the First Nation, migrants and refugee business owners can make financial decisions that will give them economic independence, hope, and freedom of choice in a country where they’ve come to find safety,” Jamie added. “I think that’s really meaningful.”
Racha Abou Alchamat from Racha Syrian Kitchen
For Syrian chef Racha Abou Alchamat, sharing classic Syrian cuisine such as delicious Chickpea Fatteh and Cheese Ma’amoul is her biggest reminder of home.
Ever since Racha migrated from Damascus to Sydney in 2015, she has been sharing the culinary traditions and food from her home with the local community. To start with, it was through school fetes and in 2017 she launched her catering business Racha Syrian Kitchen.
Now, thanks to the partnership between FoodLAB and the Sydney Markets, Racha is a familiar face at the Markets. “Since the partnership began, I’ve started doing cooking demonstrations here and I’ve got a pass to come in the morning to pick all my fruit and vegetables.”
Much of Racha’s inspiration came from her parents who both cooked in restaurants.
“When I came to Australia, I was looking for Syrian food, but I couldn’t find anything and that’s what gave me the idea of sharing authentic cuisine from home,” Racha adds.
Racha’s vision is to continue to build her catering business and take part in more pop up food events. “I would also like to do more collaborations with restaurants where you cook for 40 to 50 people. Then more people can try Syrian food which is very different for them, and they meet new people too.
Alick Malewa runs African Food Feasts
Alick Malewa from African Food Feasts has been sharing the traditional cuisine from his homeland of Zimbabwe since he first arrived in Australia in 2006.
“I love African food because it’s really spicy,” says Alick, who owns African Food Feasts, which offers rich and diverse selection of dishes inspired by the vibrant cultures of Africa.
“My favourite dish is Sadza with sour milk and a bit of sugar. It’s a real comfort food and it’s something I grew up eating when I was a kid.
“Australians are not familiar with the food I grew up with and it’s wonderful to show people what African food is really like from places such as Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana. “That’s why I enjoy doing cooking demonstrations and African Food evenings at Paddy’s Markets.”
Melinda Essey from The Messey Table
Melinda Essey from The Messey Table has never looked back since she swapped life as a copywriter to pursue her dream of running her own food business – a decision she boldly made at the age of 40. For her, the partnership between the FoodLAB and Sydney Markets has been a ‘gamechanger’.
“I’ve been doing cooking demonstrations for Sydney Markets and even went on Ch7’s Morning Show and Weekend Sunrise and Studio Ten. For me, that’s amazing. I get to talk about my passion for food. If it wasn’t for the partnership, I would never have had the opportunity to do that.”
Melinda said there are barriers to making your mark in the Sydney food industry and having the support of both FoodLAB and the Sydney Markets has helped enormously by providing her new opportunities.
“It’s helped create a pathway for me and is the most inclusive community I’ve met. I can’t speak more highly of the FoodLAB and the support I’ve had from Sydney Markets.”
Melinda specialises in taking seasonal fruit and vegetables and preserving it. “At the moment, I’m making a lot of marmalade,” she quipped.
FoodLAB Sydney focuses on supporting refugees, migrants, Aboriginal Australians and low-income entrepreneurs by offering affordable kitchen space, industry-specific resources, mentoring and sales opportunities. Since launching in 2019, FoodLAB’s vision is to create a vibrant, local and inclusive food system driven by entrepreneurs from high-barrier backgrounds doing what they love to do and achieving financial security.They recently announced a new commercial shared kitchen in Strathfield, Sydney, that will act as a co-working space for its refugee and migrant entrepreneurs to scale. The not-for-profit kitchen incubator has released a public crowdfunding campaign, seeking generous individuals and companies to help fund the equipment so they can open the kitchen. Their campaign can be found here: https://chuffed.org/project/foodlabkitchen