What do the Roma feed us with?

The new restaurant in Pécs has been operating for a couple of months, almost always with a full house. People travel long distances, from other regions of the country and some visitors come even from abroad. Guests often come back after their first experience at the restaurant. So what is the secret recipe of the „Colourful Pearls” Association

Though most people arrive with open mind and heart, the staff has experiences with guests who came to provoke. However, Ancsa, the chairwoman of the association could not be embarrassed by a guest with strong anti-Roma prejudices. She rather sat down and talked to the person for 1.5 hours. After that, the man congratulated her son for his wonderful mother when leaving. These are the cases that give real feedback to the staff, who initiated the restaurant and are also happy to have a chat with the guest while serving them excellent food.

The association has been working for twelve years to change majority attitudes, to teach people to judge each Roma as an individual and show that differences are not as great as they might seem at a first glance. They gradually learned through several programs that presenting the Roma integration issue in a direct way is not very efficient. It is much more effective when discussion is initiated on the apropos of a common meal. People get relaxed by a cup of tea, a bite of cake – says Ancsa. They start to get interested in the recipes, the ingredients. And if a conversation starts along a comfortable topic, it is much easier and more natural to switch to issues related to the Roma. As opposed to starting with uncomfortable themes that make everybody tense and distant.

This was one of the important considerations that prompted the opening of the restaurant. The other was the community of Roma women who have been working with the Association for years. Most of them being poor, undereducated, with multiple failures behind them, having no or very little work experience – it seemed futile to ask them what might be their strengths. These women were sure that they are good at nothing. Through a long process it was possible to persuade them that they do bake very nice cakes and cook fine food for their families. This was the piece of straw they managed to grab, that enabled them to build the plan of the restaurant, where everybody could do what they are best at and love to do. After a number of unsuccessful applications, the plan finally got financial support last year. The women have been very happy and wanted to do it very well.

Of course the problem emerged that running a restaurant needs different skills than running a household. Volunteer hospitality staff and waiters helped the women to learn the basics of serving the guests – which direction you hand over the plates from and how do you clear it, how do you greet your guests, and so on. The women – most of them having no more than basic primary education – devoured the knowledge. It was important to do professional work so that the guests do not scorn the restaurant as being “Gypsy”. That was the most important aspect in creating the space, in deciding what the staff should wear. “Guests are often surprised when they enter” says Ancsa, because they do not expect a modern interior, elegantly dressed women, but some authentic, folkish world. It is an important encounter and realization at a first glance: not all Roma are dressed in clothes full of roses and love loud colours on the walls. “Maybe Roma are also diverse as we are and are more similar to us than we would think” – many guests might think.

Two cooks work in the kitchen, two assistants and two waiters work at the restaurant. They could already complete all tasks by themselves but they still feel more comfortable working in pairs. They always have friendly talks with the guests when serving the constantly changing menu. You are not in a hurry here, this place is not about eating fast, paying and leaving. Dinners are from 6 p.m to 8 p.m., with lots of intimate discussion about topics the gusts bring up. Women are happy to talk about the food but also about their lives. But they never force any topic on anybody, they only share what interests the guests. They do not want to force anything.

The development these women went through is obvious. They are all active at the meetings, all of them have opinion, ideas, thoughts that they can clearly formulate – not like a few months ago. Regular activities and being able to give somebody a positive experience boosted their self-approval. Most of them plan to start some training by March – to become cooks, hospitality staff, others want to study administration – these are all necessary skills at the restaurant. These women grew up in an environment where women had to finish studies after primary school, get married, have children and stay at home. Now they start to feel that they might take their lives back to their hands. And when children see that their mothers restart studying even at the age of 40, it shows them a very important example. “When a woman is OK, her family is OK” sums up Ancsa. Of course further studies do not mean they will easily get employed somewhere else. A woman who recently joined the team of the restaurant is a trained cook, but as a Roma she did not get employed anywhere. Here she can work, learn and teach a lot of tricks to the others.

Anyway, Ancsa believes that these women will find work – either at this restaurant that is sustainable by its income or somewhere else. And if the staff gets professional education, the restaurant can grow, but it will always offer something different, something more for the guests than an average restaurant that only gives you food. It is no surprise the number of returning guest is growing, just as the number of events they have to cater for. Ancsa has a touching memory of an old man who came in, planning his the 90th birthday at the restaurant. Of course the media has an important role in spreading the news, too. By now the 12 year old association passed the threshold of social recognition and found the recipe to the heart of the people.  

We have made an interview with one of the participants of the program, Gucci: