Padraig Belton   23 February 2018


Cooking up a storm were (left to right) Louise Bannon, Jess Murphy, Mohammed Ahyam Orabi, Amer Marai, Ahmad Orabi and Christine Walsh. Photo:  Jess Murphy

Mohammed Ahyam Orabi, 26, and Ahmad Orabi, 25, are brothers. 

They are both chefs from Damascus.

But neither has cooked since 2013.

Their country's war has led the two of them, like 28-year old Amer Marai, another chef from the Syrian capital, to come and live in Ireland.

But recently the three had a chance to get back into a kitchen, when four of Ireland's chefs with Michelin stars came to Galway to spend an evening cooking with them and help get them get back to chopping and sautéeing.

A tangy za'atar, made with sumac, sesame seeds, and olive oil, was starter.  Roast chicken with yogurt sauce followed, and, perhaps appropriately given their new home, potatoes.


Damascus, the Syrian capital, was home to Mohammed Ahyam Orabi and Ahmad Orabi before they fled the war to Ireland. Picture: Dan / Flickr

Enda McEvoy, an Irish chef who also holds a Michelin star, gave over his Galway restaurant Loam and its kitchen for the evening. 

Each of the four chefs who joined the Syrian men is also an immigrant.

Jess Murphy, owner of Galway's Kai Restaurant, is originally from New Zealand (her husband is Irish). Damien Grey, half of Heron and Grey in Dublin, comes from Australia. 

Meanwhile Takashi Miyazak, of Cork's Miyazaki Restaurant, is from Japan, and Mickael Viljanen, head chef of The Greenhouse, is from Finland.

"It was good craic, we had a good evening," Mrs Murphy says. "Takashi was telling them how to use chopsticks - we were all having a laugh over that."

And not only was the evening one of chefs helping chefs, but also immigrants helping immigrants.

"None of us are from Ireland," says Mrs Murphy. "I had a contact in the UN, we contacted her, and said we're going to be immigrants cooking for refugees."

Asylum-seekers are at present unable to work in Ireland, although Mrs Murphy is hopeful the law will change in the coming year. Ireland's minister for justice, Charlie Flanagan, said in October that refugees would be permitted to work soon.

"We've been talking about flying to Bulgaria and saying we need chefs in Ireland," she said. But then they decided to look closer to home.

"We said, sod it, we'll have a look at the direct provision [refugees] list and see if any of these guys are chefs."

Mrs Murphy says the goals of the four chefs go beyond a single evening of cooking. Even if it did involve mixing za'atar with potatoes.

three Syrian chefs

Brothers Mohammed Ahyam Orabi and Ahmad Orabi, together with Amer Marai, found a warm welcome in Enda McAvoy's Galway kitchen. Photo: Jess Murphy

Ireland's economy is booming - it has been the fastest growing economy in the eurozone for three years, a title it looks set to keep this year as well. 

This means many sectors, from restaurants to tech, cannot find all the skilled workers they need in a country of just 4.7m people. 

Mrs Murphy talks about the restaurant sector creating a blueprint for other sectors of Ireland's economy, helping them to look to asylum-seekers for the skills that businesses badly need. 

"We want to start writing the blueprint and roll these dinners out through Ireland - it could be chefs, but it could be carpenters, woodworkers."

In each case, Mrs Murphy sees the dinners as a way to "showcase their skills and giving them the opportunities of a job, training, and a way into Irish society".

There are thought to be just under 8,000 asylum-seekers in Ireland, who receive €21.60 a week and their food and shelter.   

In 2014, 37 per cent of people in direct provision had been there for five years or more. 

They are also, for the moment, unable to work - Ireland is the only EU country with this absolute prohibition, although there are indications that this policy might change.

The UK permits refugees to ask for permission to work after a year; in the other EU countries, the period is capped at nine months. Germany and Belgium grant permission after three and six months respectively.

"They'll be in employment pretty much as soon as we get the get-go," she says. "I've already got chefs on the south coast, in Waterford, looking into hiring those three guys."

Syria is the "wheat crescent," says Mrs Murphy. "That's where all the wheat comes from, the deluxe of the deluxe.

"This isn't some hipster alternative - these guys know real food." 

The four restaurant chefs have raised funds for three scholarships, to put refugees through a restaurant and hospitality qualification at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT).

"They are fabulous, wonderful people, and they may not have worked in a while, or may not be aware of Irish food legislation, EU safety legislation, European cuisine," says Cáit Noone, who is vice-president of GMIT and head of its Galway International Hotel School.

Kai Restaurant Galway

Galway's Kai Restaurant is owned by a Kiwi, Jess Murphy, one of the four who helped arrange the evening for the three Syrian men. Picture: Johannes Ghee / Flickr

"So the idea is we'll get people to apply, interview them, and recognise their previous skills, knowledge, and experience," says Ms Noone, "and then say you need to do this module, and that, and very quickly get them ready to take their place in a restaurant.

"I spoke to GMIT, where I work - they have all these amazing modules," she says. "My colleagues didn't even bat an eyelid, they said 'let's go do it'."

Ms Noone says: "To people who've had these traumatic experiences, now you're here, in this strange country where it rains a lot. We don't want you just to live with us, but come into a higher education institution, see our beautiful library building."

She hopes to have the first students begin early this year. "We don't want to be hanging around waiting," she adds. 

Meanwhile Kai Restaurant's Jess Murphy looks forward to an exchange of ideas and palettes, between a rejuvenated Irish food culture - one growing daily more open to the rest of the world, while also prizing more the country's own artisanal and craft foods - and refugees and their foods of home.

"If we get these guys working for us, we're going to learn a heck of a lot," she says, adding: "Kitchens have always been a United Nations. I've never worked in a kitchen where everyone is from the same country."

And she says Ireland's new arrivals, mingling their foods of home with the country's own culinary revival, will push Irish food in exciting new directions.