KELLI BRETT finds the Christchurch food community uniting to heal, understand
A week had passed and the shock of the terror attacks on Christchurch was still very raw. I wondered what the trickle-down effect would be for a community that had already faced so much tragedy and had now had their wounds ripped open again. As we checked in with our friends and industry colleagues, a story of strength and hope unfolded of a group of resilient hospitality industry folk who are gathering together to build a new bridge to understanding, respect and connection for all Kiwis through our food.
Simo Abbari arrived in New Zealand in 1994 from Morocco. After graduating from the oldest French cooking school in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, he worked in restaurants in Europe and North Africa before landing his first job on NZ soil in the kitchen of the original Millenium Hotel in Christchurch. He then worked at the Park Royal and the Convention Centre before opening New Zealand’s first Moroccan restaurant, Simo’s in Cashel Mall in 2002. But Simo lost his beloved Simo’s twice. The Cashel Mall restaurant succumbed to the 2010 earthquake and then its reincarnation at the Crowne Plaza Hotel was destroyed in the 2011 quake. He now works as an executive consultant chef and runs Chez Simo’s, a café and bistro in Fendalton.
The weeks following the attacks were, for Simo, the most emotional weeks of his life. He has spent them making and delivering halal food to the hospital for the wounded and their families, as well as keeping his café doors open to enable the community to gather, share and support. One of his business managers was murdered, and one of his chefs is in hospital after being hit by four bullets. Through all of this, his focus has been to feed the people.
Nik Mavromatis, although now at Greystone Wines, has been a chef for most of his life. In the wake of the tragedy, Nik reached out to Simo to offer his help. Simo said he wanted to use food to connect cultures and develop relationships that would create a better understanding so that this type of tragedy might never happen again. Both men feel that the most important place in a home is the kitchen and the sharing of love there, so they began to talk about finding a way to extend that.
Nik was contacted by others in the Christchurch hospitality community who were also looking for ways to help. Rapidly a crew developed – including Katie Duncan, Tony Smith, Jonny Schwass, Dan Shanks, Ryan Henley and Gary Miller – which is now working on what shape and form this vision will take. They hope to work through the unthinkable hurt to connect all levels of society, especially families and children, to show that we are all one big family, that the woman you see living down the road with a head scarf is not scary, is not ‘other’ but just like you. Simo has long dreamed of a New Zealand cuisine that will be stronger by connecting all of its cultures. “Imagine if I get all of these guys with me and teach them what we do and why we do it. What do we need to cook as Muslims? What does it mean to share our food? What is the authentic taste of our food? The kitchen is the nucleus of our family, as soon as I share with you from the same plate we can no longer be enemies and yet we have never explained this to our colleagues. What if we invited them to share with us and create something beautiful that we can all learn from?”
I am reminded of a conversation that I had years ago with Australian filmmaker Trevor Graham who insisted that a simple bowl of hummus could be the answer to world peace. The famous dip is claimed by virtually every country in the Middle East and each version has its own special twist in either preparation or toppings and yet when you sit down around a bowl of hummus and break bread together there is no religion or race, just the act of sharing.
Hmmm. These guys could be on to something…
Nik says that to have this action of pure hatred inflicted on his city is beyond cruel. “We have many Muslims working throughout many restaurants here and a number of these people have been killed or injured. They worked the line with us, they are our brothers and sisters in whites. These people spent their waking hours preparing food with love for New Zealanders. We as an industry can’t fix this, it cannot be undone. There is a long road of recovery for those injured. However, if we can find a way to spread understanding and love amongst cultures we can ensure that we are all more caring for each other. Maybe cooking and eating together can go a little way towards that.”
If you would like to support and help build this community initiative contact Nik on email@example.com.