As Ovalhouse Theatre prepare to move to Brixton, Zofia Niemtus went along to hear about their current guest kitchen.
Of all the potential issues of opening a new restaurant, having your impeccable ethics threaten to overshadow your incredible food is an enviable (if unusual) one. Such is the situation faced by roaming restaurant Mazi Mas – Greek for “with us” – which serves up brilliant food via an equally remarkable social enterprise scheme.
The project, established in 2012 by American Niki Kopcke, trains long-term unemployed migrant and refugee women as chefs, cooking the food they serve at home. They are paid above the minimum wage, assisted in securing permanent jobs in the food industry and, crucially, they develop the independence and security they have often lacked in the absence of a regular employment. Some women refer themselves to the organisation, others are nominated by partner projects – there are currently 40 names on the waiting list.
Mazi Mas built its culinary reputation on a series of well-received pop-ups across London. It is currently in the middle of its longest-ever residency – a three-month stint at the Ovalhouse Theatre – and the search is under way for a permanent venue. Last year, the project was named as one of The Observer’s 50 “New Radicals” changing society for the better; last week it exceeded its crowdfunding target by more than £1,000.
Which is all pretty incredible. But so is the food, truly. And that is what Mazi Mas is about; it is not a charity, it is a restaurant. A really, really good one. The menu is small, reasonably priced (£3-£4 for starters, £7-£8 for mains) and changed daily as a different chef takes the lead – the current team includes women from Turkey, Peru, Brazil and Iran, making for a huge variety of dishes throughout the week.
Warmth is a key feature, in terms of flavour and atmosphere. The focal point of the unfussy dining room is an open kitchen, where the chefs talk and laugh as they work. The waitress speaks giddily, at length, about her favourite parts of the menu, led on the night we visit by Brazilian Roberta Siao. At one point, diners from another table lean over to ask what we ordered as it smells so good.
We start with Robertaʼs pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread rolls), which are smoky and rich, but remarkably light. We team them with the cassava chips and chilli mayo – they are firm, full of flavour and covered in cracked salt. They are also so ridiculously more-ish that we start googling recipes for them as soon as the starters are cleared (and we are still texting about them the next day).
For the main course, we share a salad and Roberta’s moqueca de peixe (fish poached in coconut milk with peppers, lime and coriander). The crisp lightness of the salad – peas, broad beans and radishes, topped with cheese and a citrus dressing – contrasts with the heady flavour of the fish; its scent is what grabs our neighbours’ attention and we ask for extra sourdough bread to mop up every last mouthful.
Dessert is a saffron rice pudding – like so many of the dishes here, it is at once hearty and subtle, completely new to us but somehow familiar in its simple tastiness.
So you should definitely go to Mazi Mas – go for the food, go for the difference it makes to women, go for a chance to taste something you will probably never have eaten before. And then go again. I know I will.
Follow @eatmazimas to find out who is cooking each day at Ovalhouse. Mazi Mas is in residency until 30th May.
Zofia is a regular contributor at the Brixton Blog and tweets @zofcha.