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From refugee to restauranteur

LIFE-CHANGING: Élysée’s journey has seen him cook in prestigious venues across the world

SOME OF my earliest, and happiest, memories are centred around my mother’s cooking pot in the Republic of Congo. I would sit and watch as she brought together fresh ingredients, I’d mischievously pinch a few scraps when her back was turned, and even after she’d finished cooking I would play around with different flavour combinations of my own.

My friends would be outside playing football, but I saw myself as a scientist, experimenting and making new food creations. The world as I knew it was turned upside in 1993.

The whole country was being torn apart by the Congolese civil war, and I watched in horror as many of my family and friends
were brutally killed. My life was in very real danger, so aged just 14, I was sent to France as a refugee. When people today talk about refugees, there is so much focus on what they are running away from.

I was relieved to be out of the danger zone, and my heart and mind was filled with all I had left behind, but I now faced another incredible challenge of integrating into a completely unfamiliar environment. I was dropped into the French school system as a young African teenager and was expected to just get on with it.

Inevitably, I struggled academically, and it was very easy to start believing that I simply wasn’t ‘clever’ enough to keep up.

A LIFE-CHANGING LIFELINE

The one thing I clung to at this difficult time was my love of food, and after a lot of hard work and persistence, I was delighted when my talent was spotted by one of France’s most prestigious culinary schools and I was given a place. Here I got the opportunity to do my classical training, to work under famous Michelin-starred chefs, and to start refining my techniques and developing the ideas that I’d always just played with.

I threw myself into my training wholeheartedly, and by the age of just 22, I had opened my first restaurant in Toulouse. It was something that I could never have even imagined when I arrived in Europe as a scared teenager, let alone as an inquisitive little boy sat by my mother’s cooking pot.

INTERNATIONAL FLAVOURS<.b>

My classical training taught me so much about European cuisine and the techniques needed to create the dishes that are fine-dining favourites across the world. However, my roots and my heart were in the Congo, and I still loved the flavours and ingredients that I had grown up with but were still relatively unknown to my European colleagues. Ingredients like plantain, safou, baobab, pangasius and even crocodile and caterpillars, that are not only delicious, but also offer great health benefits.

Over the following years, I set about developing my own signature style of cooking, bringing together Congolese and European flavours, to create unique gourmet dishes. It hasn’t been easy, but I am proud to say that by staying true to who I am and focusing on what makes me unique, I have been given the opportunity to cook all around the world.

BACK TO MY ROOTS

When I tell people my story today, they look at me with sympathy and sometimes almost disbelief. However, while I wouldn’t wish such traumatic experiences on anyone, the truth is they not only made me the person I am today, but also shaped what I do. The experiences I have been through have taught me invaluable life lessons about resilience, determination and self-worth, and the importance of not judging people on face value – my life was transformed when someone saw me as more than just a refugee and took a chance on me. I will do whatever I can to pay that forward.

Over the last few years I have been involved with orphanages in Brazzaville and Kinshasa in Congo, and a L’Ecole Speciale de Brazzaville, a free school for physically and mentally handicapped children, and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. When I visit I run cooking workshops, as well as other educational support, to help equip the young people with life skills. Not many of the young people I work with would have ever considered cooking as a viable career, but through our work we aim to build an attitude that anything is possible.

I also host pop-up restaurants to help support refugee charities, the next of which is due to take place at The Open Kitchen Bar and Restaurant in London on March 3. This pop-up is organised in partnership with the charity, Wonder Foundation, to support the Kimbondo Training Centre in Kinshasa, where they do great work to address the many challenges faced by young women in this part of the Congo.

I hope that events like this will not only raise awareness of the plight of so many refugees across Europe, who have perhaps not been as fortunate as I have, but also introduce diners to a world of new flavours and ingredients.

Mick Élysée is an international TV chef specialising in gourmet Afro-fusion cuisine. He regularly hosts pop-up restaurants around London, and his new healthy recipe book ‘Not Guilty’ is out this month.

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