What you need to know

Magnificent Mamma’s Kitchen

“If you know the food, you know the culture; if you know the culture, you know me.”

When Fahan Ahmed says these words, the women sitting around her voice loud agreement.

Fahan is surrounded by her fellow participants in the Mamma’s Kitchen project, all employed part-time as part of the Victorian Government’s Working for Victoria initiative.

Fourteen women from the Flemington and Ascot Vale housing estates work from the kitchen at Clocktower Centre to prepare and distribute culturally-appropriate and nutritious meals to people who are doing it tough.

All of the women have existing food qualifications, but they are upgrading their certification and their skills under the knowledgeable eye of Executive Chef Harris Ryan.

The program builds on Council’s Flemington Works employment program, funded by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions.

Awatif Taha, Employment & Entrepreneurship Support Officer for Mamma’s Kitchen, explains that the idea for Mamma’s Kitchen arose from discussions during a co-design exercise to improve employment opportunities for women living on Flemington Housing Estate.

“In the co-design we discussed the problems that women are facing,” Awatif said.

“When women have kids it is hard for them to work far from home.

“We decided to do this so people could build on their qualifications.

“The practical experience they get from this project will help them if they want to work in childcare, catering, school canteens, aged care, or work as chefs in commercial kitchens.

“If there are meetings or events, Mamma’s Kitchen can cater for them. Everyone here has a different culture and different food, but we work together.

“Africans have always been good at cooking, it is something we inherited from our grandmothers, and we need to share that with people now: how good we are at cooking and how good our food is.

“Our food uses similar spices to Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, but there are other influences.

“If you look at the food from Sudan and Ethiopia, for example, it is similar but different.

“People understand that Italian and French food is similar but different. It is the same with the African nations.

“We are giving an opportunity here for everyone to come and share with us and find out about our food and our culture.”

All the food is bought fresh, and almost all of it is purchased from local traders in Flemington.

“So often in this industry we are feeding those who already have so much,” Harris said.

“What you see at the moment is the raw energy of people learning new things and building new structures, but we have the beginnings of a smooth operation. In our first week we made 100 meals. By week three we have made 700, feeding approximately 150 families in need.

“Council is doing something very positive here. I definitely think this pilot program has the potential to be a viable commercial operation, but at the very least it is an opportunity to embrace learning for a community that has faced difficult times.

“Personally, I am getting exposure to East African culture and cuisine that as a chef I’ve never had. I feel very fortunate to be able to learn as much as I teach.”

The project is partnering with local agencies Wingate Avenue Community Centre and Flemington People’s Pantry-Essendon Baptist Community Church for the distribution of meals.

Project sponsors include Transurban and the Department of Transport. They are supporting Mamma’s Kitchen through the provision of delivery vehicles, which would typically be used to run our driving programs, L2P and DriveLink, but are currently suspended due to COVID-19. The Business of Food also supported Mamma’s Kitchen through the development phase.

The last word goes to Fahan: “It is great, because the community can see that we are successful. It was a very good idea for Council to bring this project together.

“It helps these women to feel confident inside themselves because they have learned a lot, and after this we can then go and teach other women.”

What the Mammas say:

AWATIF TAHA: Our falafel is the absolute best, but a lot of Australians have never tasted it. We need to see our falafel out there!

FAHAN AHMED: Even for those of us who have cooked all our lives, there is a lot that is new. We have never used measurements before, just our eyes! We are learning how to use new equipment, how to write menus, write recipes, follow the directions for food safety. All these things will give women confidence to open their own businesses. The kids only see their dads working, so to see mums working is very important. Women feel strong working here.

HALIMA FARAH: My community loves when I cook my Somalian food, but I don’t know how to teach. I’m learning here how to teach other people to do what I do and help them cook like me. It makes us all, from the heart, happy.

ESHRAQA HANGALA: My daughter says she is proud I do this. She says, you cook and look after people who are elderly or sick or have no home.

RUTH EYAKEM: We are very happy here because we have so much teamwork. The chef is very organised, he gives us jobs and we follow them. Teamwork makes the job easy. Harris (chef) is always patient and polite. All day we say, ‘Harris! Harris!’ I think we need two Harris’s.