ets-hokin pours out a large tray of rice
Rebecca Ets-Hokin making rice in a French refugee camp

Marin chef feeds refugees in French camp

Not far from a migrant camp in the northern French city of Calais, Bay Area resident Rebecca Ets-Hokin joined a handful of mostly British chefs who toiled 12 hours a day preparing hot meals for thousands of refugees.

Officially called the Refugee Community Kitchen, a British social services operation that helps feed refugees, the makeshift cooking area was little more than a tent inside an open warehouse, Ets-Hokin said. Her days began at 7:30 a.m., firing up the ovens to bake bread dough that had been rising overnight.

“I had four layers — I couldn’t wear any more clothing,” Ets-Hokin said of the cold weather.

With temperatures hovering around 30 degrees in Calais, six chefs and about 12 non-professional kitchen assistants labored daily to create meals, usually consisting of bean curry — sometimes with nuts or seeds — rice, flatbreads and a salad.

ets-hoking smiles while stirring a large vat of soup
Rebecca Ets-Hokin stirs the soup pot at a refugee camp in Calais, France.

Ets-Hokin is a former J. recipe columnist, a longtime food writer, and a noted chef and cooking teacher. The Tiburon resident said the importance of tzedakah and tikkun olam strongly influenced her decision to volunteer overseas from Feb. 6 to 15.

“It’s why we’re on the planet,” she said.

The Bay Area Jewish community also proved critical in her decision. Rabbi Sydney Mintz of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El pushed Ets-Hokin to launch an online crowdfunding campaign, something she wouldn’t have considered had her rabbi not suggested it.

The Bay Area Jewish food professional group Illuminoshi also had a hand in the fundraising. All told, she raised $3,700 — about 80 percent of it from the Jewish community — which she used to purchase food for the refugees. She paid for her own travel and lodging.

In addition to her time in Calais, Ets-Hokin also volunteered in Paris under a program organized by La Cuisine des Migrants and Utopia 56. She set up her participation in Calais and Paris independently.

Calais, which overlooks the English Channel, has been a popular transit point among migrants due to its proximity to the Chunnel, which connects France and England. Some refugees attempt to stow away on trucks traveling across the channel. Though the French government has taken repeated actions to stem the flow — including arrests and mass relocation — camps outside the city persist. The mayor of Calais recently banned the distribution of food to migrants.

According to Ets-Hokin, the refugees she fed were mostly from Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, with some from Eritrea on the Horn of Africa. The families she served were well-educated upper and middle class.

One day while Ets-Hokin served a meal, a young girl standing in line with her father asked for rice. She was just learning English and Ets-Hokin couldn’t understand the request. The father clarified: “Rice, you know, like Condoleezza Rice,” the former U.S. secretary of state.

Dietary restrictions, financial constraints and food preferences dictated the menu. Because many, if not most, of the refugees were Muslim, and halal meat was scarce, lentils or garbanzo beans became staples. Rutabaga, zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, tomatoes and lettuce were common ingredients.

Ets-Hokin called the food “hot and healthy,” and stressed that she and her colleagues endeavored to create dishes they would be willing to eat themselves.

Donations accounted for a significant portion of the raw materials and arrived via the Chunnel in what she called “massive trucks.” In addition to the single meal served daily, the chefs also ran a dry-goods store that rationed pantry items such as canned tomatoes, tea and sugar.

Back in her chef role at a rehab facility in Marin County, Ets-Hokin says that she has suffered something of “re-entry burn” adjusting to life in the United States.

When asked whether she plans to volunteer in France again, Ets Hokin said, “I can’t wait to go back.”

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.