Culinary refuge

Swiss Kiwanians support a refugee-run kitchen that provides more than a hot meal and job training. It provides community and hope.

Story by Julie Saetre • Photos by Clara Tuma Photography

The picturesque city of Basel, Switzerland, nestled beside the Rhine River, seems custom-designed for postcards and travel blogs. Known as Switzerland’s cultural capital, Basel features some 40 museums inside its borders, along with performing arts venues and renowned architecture both modern and historic.

The building where Soup and Chill and the Restaurant du Coeur program are located.

One of the most well-known of the latter is the SBB Railway Station, built in 1854 and redone in the early 1900s. Located in Basel’s city center, it was hailed as “a world reserved for travelers” — but by the 21st century’s debut, it had also become a shopper’s haven, filled with boutiques, eateries and services (insurance, currency exchangers, travel agencies and more).

Tucked behind the bustling border station in a quaint two-story structure is another area eatery, Restaurant du Coeur. Inside its cozy kitchen, a diverse collection of chefs creates a tapestry of international cuisine: specialties from Turkey, Tunisia, Italy, Greece, Spain, the Middle East. They work seamlessly, efficiently, amiably. 

But behind the culinary prowess, the shared camaraderie and the warm smiles lies a less sunny mix of turmoil, struggle and uncertainty. The chefs at Restaurant du Coeur are refugees who have fled home countries marred by political unrest, poverty and war. And with the help of the Kiwanis Club of Basel-St. Alban, they are learning skills highly valued in this cultured city — with the hope they can one day put the past firmly behind them and settle in as citizens.

Birçan, (right) and Wabi (left) in the kitchen in front of steaming pots, cooking for the catering (and normally for lunch for Restaurant du Coeur).

Kiwanian Claudia Adrario de Roche is their strongest advocate. Basel is the perfect setting for Adrario de Roche. Born in Austria, she studied voice and archeology, going on to sing on stages in some of Europe’s most storied cities: Brussels, Cologne, London, Paris. But she is well aware of those living in a city’s shadows, and addressing their needs fuels her passion for service.

In 2005, the SBB Railway Station began attracting not only local shoppers and eager tourists, but homeless individuals seeking shelter from the rain, snow and cold that accompany a Swiss winter. 

“Immediately, conflicts between travelers, security and homeless people started up,” Adrario de Roche recalls.

While some simply wanted the homeless to find shelter elsewhere, Adrario de Roche instead wanted to make a difference.

Claudia Adrario de Roche, the woman behind Soup and Chill.

“You cannot send anybody away without showing him a way,” she says. “This sentence is so simple and so true. We could only calm the conflicts by presenting a solution to our homeless persons — concretely, finding a place for them where they were welcome.”

So in 2006, Adrario de Roche joined with two other women to found Soup and Chill just a few hundred meters from the rail station. 

“We hired a very miserable room — we had no money to pay for a better one — and opened the door. The name Soup and Chill says almost everything: People get food and a place for spending a few hours without stress and without all the dangers of life in the street.”

From November through March, Soup and Chill opens for four hours each evening, providing free coffee, tea, juice and soup to anyone who visits. In return, guests help prepare the soup and beverages, serve and clean up — all while following Adrario de Roche’s three rules.

May, head chef for Restaurant du Coeur, cooking for lunch and for the catering service.

“No sexism, no racism and no violence. Everybody respecting these basics and behaving in a respectful way with other guests and staff is welcome.”

Before long, she had recruited the help of her fellow Kiwanians, led by André Eschler, the founder of the Kiwanis Club of Basel-St. Alban.

“I wanted to make our club better known in Basel for addressing social deficiencies,” he says. “Our club has dedicated itself to the Soup and Chill project.”

Each winter day, Soup and Chill welcomes some 100 guests in an upgraded location. In 2012, friends of the Kiwanis Club of Basel-St. Alban donated furniture and kitchen equipment for the enhanced space.

But Adrario de Roche wasn’t ready to stop there. Since the kitchen and dining areas aren’t in use until 3 p.m., and not at all in the warmer months, she decided to reach out to another group in need: refugees.

In 2019 alone, 14,269 refugees applied for asylum in Switzerland. They come from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria and other countries in crisis. But once they arrive, they often find themselves in limbo, caught in governmental red tape and limitations on employment.

“The asylum laws, and therefore the opportunity for young people to find employment, are extremely difficult — and difficult to understand — in Switzerland,” explains Adrario de Roche. “Asylum seekers wait for the first decision, then for the second, which can take years. And they cannot take on ‘normal’ work during this waiting period. However, the longer they do not work, the harder they are to integrate into a work process.”

So once again, she set out to find a way. In 2016, she helped found Restaurant du Coeur. By November 2017, the “culinary social program” had been recognized by the cantons of Basel Stadt and Baselland as an employment program for asylum seekers. Refugees are allowed to work at the restaurant under the direction of a permanent staff provided and paid by the private “Freunde von Soup&Chill” group. Refugees receive a very low wage through the cantons.

Inside Soup and Chill. Where tables and chairs usually make an inviting interior, food is now stacked to be put into bags for the guests to pick up at the door (following coronavirus safety measures). In the background are (from left to right: May, Birçan, Selam, Wabi and two helpers from another organization.)

“Refugees coming to Europa/Switzerland bring with them their recipes, their talent for cooking and presenting nice food to friends and guests,” Adrario de Roche says. “Lots of refugees have made the long journey for getting out of the hell of war or undemocratic systems, as well as for finding a better life.”

Refugees like Selam, who fled her home country of Eritrea with her husband, only to be separated from him in the Libyan desert. After making the crossing to Lampedusa, an island off the coast of southern Italy, she was raped, became pregnant and then lost the baby as she traveled through Italy’s mainland. After working at a café in Venice for two years, she learned that her husband had made it safely to Basel. She rejoined him there and began working at the Restaurant du Coeur two weeks later.

Birçan making Turkish lentil köfte for lunch (and the evening’s catering).

Refugees like Bircan, a Turkish woman who traveled to Switzerland with her daughter, a paraplegic after a bombing attack in Syria. Bircan is known as one of Restaurant du Coeur’s most talented chefs, and her wages help her independently support her own needs and those of her child.

Monday through Friday, Restaurant du Coeur serves a lunch of soup, salad, main course and dessert, prepared by the refugees. Ingredients for the dishes come from a food-sharing program that distributes surplus supplies that would otherwise go to waste. The ever-changing menu has no prices; guests choose how much to donate in return for the meal.

In addition to honing their cooking skills, the refugees also receive instruction in the German language and training in key areas of catering, including proper handling of food, punctuality, service standards and workplace dynamics. 

“Work takes a central place in every new start,” says Adrario de Roche. “Work brings structure, work creates social contacts, work gives the chance to show your talents — bringing acceptance and success.”

Her theory has proven true. Locals, drawn to the delicious variety of cuisines and the warmth of those who prepare and serve the meals, have made Restaurant du Coeur a popular lunch spot for both business and casual meals. Companies reserve the room for corporate meetings or order catered meals to go. Families celebrate special occasions with a Restaurant du Coeur spread.

Still, the project receives no government subsidies, and donations don’t cover all expenses. So Adrario de Roche is working on other methods to ensure the project’s long-term success.

“We hope to establish a sponsorship system,” she says, “so that we can afford to lead people to independence without endangering the restaurant’s finances. The Kiwanis Club of Basel-St. Alban has committed to helping. And everyone can support this project.”

That’s key, she adds, not just for the future of the restaurant and its refugees, but for a future of building bridges and forming unity in a diverse world that is too often deeply divided.

“We are happy about this success, but what’s even more important is the philosophy behind it. Everybody likes food from different countries, placed together on one board. There are no restrictions, no barriers. A tortilla from Spain is delicious with tzatziki from Greece. Arabic bread is so tasty with olive tapenade from Italy. 

“It’s possible on a board. Why isn’t it possible in real life to accept different cultures? Why is it so difficult to appreciate that they are different?”

Nicolas, an employee, is handing out food packages in the evening. During the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic, the 2m distance is maintained by putting tables at the entrance where people come one by one to pick up their food. The tables where guests usually sit have been removed.
Erwin is happy that he can help. Oranges just arrived and he is opening the nets they came in.
Claudia is opening the door for the butcher, who is arriving with his weekly Friday donation of meats.
Wabi in the kitchen.

This story originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

4 thoughts on “Culinary refuge

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  1. I shared this storey with Kelly Tallman Clements who was in school with one of my daugters. Kelly is stationed in Geneva Switzerland and is United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. She really liked the article.

  2. I shared this article with the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, Ms Kelly Tallman Clements who is stationed in Geneva Switzerland. She was in school with one of my daughters and really liked the article.

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