It was exactly this, a longing for pita bread that brought about a life-changing programme and groundbreaking eating establishment that rocked a refugee community in Lisbon–Mezze.
Mezze operates under the umbrella of the NGDO (Non-Governmental Development Organization) Pão a Pão Association, created and run by four founders, Francisca Gorjão Henriques, Rita Melo, Nuno Mesquita, and Alaa Hariri, that wanted to make a difference.
Relish Portugal sat down with Francisca Gorjão Henriques, president of Pão a Pão, to learn more about this innovative project that’s making an impact with Middle Eastern refugees and thrilling Middle Eastern food lovers.
RP: First, congratulations on Mezze’s third anniversary and over 70,000 meals served. Wow! What an ambitious project. How did it come about?
FH: It’s a great story. Several friends were gathered at a birthday party in April 2016. We began talking about food. We asked Alaa, then a Syrian architecture student and one of the Pão a Pão founders, what she missed the most about Damascus. Bread, she said, pita bread.
As we considered that, we began thinking, “ah, that’s interesting, there’s no Syrian bread in Lisbon. How come?” Perhaps we would open a Syrian bakery where we could make pita bread. Then we thought, no, how about a restaurant instead. On the Middle Eastern table, bread is like a spoon, used to scoop up other delicious items. It’s not eaten alone as we do in Portugal. As we continued talking, we realized there were few to no Middle Eastern restaurants in Lisbon. That didn’t make sense to us. Middle Eastern food is healthy and delicious. So we decided to open a restaurant.
It was a crazy impulse that could have gone the other way. None of us had any prior restaurant experience, but we did have passion. Collectively, we also wanted to help the Syrian refugee community.
There were a lot of variables. As we began developing the idea, we became a non-profit association. Our circle of friends loved the idea but we knew they were biased. We needed to reach out to the general population for their feedback. The enthusiasm was great. We began to mobilise, setting up a crowdfunding campaign, and raised more than €23,000, which was amazing since we were unknowns.
To validate the idea with the public and to make sure we, and our team, understood the practical commitment, we hosted a series of Christmas dinners. We posted the dining events, held at Mercado Santa Clara in Alfama, on our Facebook page, noting that we needed a minimum of 20 diners and to RSVP. We were overwhelmed with interest. To our amazement, we never had fewer than 110 guests.
These events brought a large amount of press and, of course, that garnered additional interest.
RP: With so much fanfare, everyone must have been eager for Mezze to open its doors.
FH: Yes. The media coverage made a tremendous difference, allowing us to become self-sustaining after only a couple of months. We received help from many members of the business community and were humbled, allowing us to open in Mercado de Arroios with a true community feel.
RP: How did you arrange your staffing?
FH: Alaa was involved with the Syrian refugee community. In the beginning, she was integral to helping us recruit help. We began with 12 people and soon, because of our success, hired six more. The women and young men that joined our establishment have so much to give and yet, needed support after fleeing harrowing circumstances. The women, supporting their families, have precious, unique knowledge – cooking – but are considered non-skilled and have no work experience outside the home. The young men were unable to finish their schooling or pursue a career in their homeland.
In no time, we became known. Again, the press we received was helpful and refugees began coming to us. As we got better at what we did, we streamlined our operation. Now we employ 13-14 individuals at Mezze.
RP: What can diners expect when they visit Mezze?
FH: Mezze means sharing a meal with family or friends. It’s a party of small, colorful, appetizing dishes where bread is never lacking. Mezze can be hot or cold, sweet or salty, subtle or spicy. You can always count on it being delicious. People tell us our baba ganoush, hummus, and tabbouleh are the best they’ve ever tasted. And, of course, our pita bread always gets rave reviews.
We offer five different Mezze platters as well as an à la carte menu, dessert, and drinks. We’re always busy so bookings are recommended. If, by chance, people stumble upon us and want to eat but don’t have a booking we often accommodate a queue that forms outside our door. And for businesses or gatherings, we offer catering as well as take away.
Mezza (https://www.facebook.com/paoapao.associacao/) reopens to an adoring public on 4 May 2021. Start planning now.
1 large bunch of parsley (about 250gr), washed, dried, and chopped
2 tbsp fresh mint (optional), chopped
4 ripe and juicy tomatoes, chopped
2 tbsp fine bulgur, soaked for ten minutes
1 lemon, freshly-squeezed
2 tbsp olive oil
salt to taste
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Taste, adjust to your liking and serve.
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