Rumi Saffron and its Mission Featured at the Parabere Forum
In an expansive room filled with old paintings of life-sized philosophers, kings, and Roman emperors, women from all over the world sat on rows of stately wooden pews to talk about food. We were at the Parabere Forum hosted at the University of Barcelona in its oldest building. The interior resembled a large cathedral – I was definitely not in Chicago. As an invited speaker who was not a chef, I was intimidated.
The Parabere Forum was founded three years ago for women in gastronomy and the culinary arts to come together to talk about gender equality issues, sustainability, and communities. The world of food is one of the last standing industries still dominated by men. Still, to this day, out of 50 best restaurants only two are owned by women chefs. There’s the infamous Time magazine article “The gods of food” which conspicuously lacked a single female chef out of 13 featured. Women in chef manager positions earn almost 30% less than their male counterparts. The chefs attending this Forum had worked hard, overcoming many barriers, to become where they sit now. Margot Janse, chef of the famed Tasting Room and pioneer of feeding local South African children in poor neighborhoods, told us about her early days carving her way into the culinary world and learning the hard way from the bottom up. Dominique Crenn, a world-renowned French chef who owns Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, spoke feistily about the shallow, misogynist mindset of some of her culinary countrymen. Nikandre Kopcke co-founder of Mazí Mas, shared the story of her grandmother who wanted to own her own pastry shop and was bluntly shot down by her husband, who told her, “Women do not have the capacity to start and run businesses.”
There were stories of hope, of triumph, of these women doing great things. Nikki and Roberta started a restaurant in London hiring immigrants and refugees. Chef Joshna took over a Canadian hospital kitchen to revamp the food offerings to become real nourishment and care to patients for physical and emotional healing. These many voices of the Parabere Forum wove a rich tapestry of community and hope.
There were thought-provoking challenges of the status quo. Why have the French dominated the sphere of culinary education, as the base foundation for all cooking knowledge? Young students from Thailand or Hong Kong would still have to learn “mother sauces” of the French method at the culinary schools, yet these sauces were strangely irrelevant as they returned to home countries to start anew in their real mother traditions of food.
We at Rumi believe in the power of diverse community and of many voices woven together to create a rich tapestry. We don’t believe in the status quo. One of the main themes of the writings of Rumi is the concept of tawhīd: reunion with his beloved, the primal root of one’s being. It is a journey, and it is a constant push towards progress. One saffron flower at a time, Rumi will lay a foundation for peace between Afghanistan and the western world. Food is nourishment and hope. Food is love. Saffron, as the ultimate queen of spices, both healed people in ancient Persian medicine as well as blessed the unification of newlyweds by being strewn on the wedding bed. Saffron is given as fragrant gifts from one family to another on special occasions. Saffron is put into special desserts to show one’s honor and friendship to another.
As I stood up on the ornate stage with light streaming from stained glass windows picturing philosophers, telling the Rumi story to these women chefs, some of them cried. They understood the uphill battle fought by our Afghan women to have a voice. They understood the power of food to unite people over the table and nourish communities. They came up afterwards to intake the wonderful aroma of our saffron, sprinkle it in water and drink saffron tea while learning more about business and life in Afghanistan. Many saffron recipes and stories were also shared with laughter and nostalgia.
This wonderful group of women chefs will be a force of propagation of Rumi saffron across the world. If you find Rumi saffron in a fifteen-seat acclaimed restaurant in Trieste or in Turkeys most esteemed chef’s restaurant in Istanbul or a lovely romantic spot in South Africa, it is because of the power of saffron, community, food, and people who passionately build the future.