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Rebecca Stewart, co-founder and GM of Pomegranate Kitchen.
Rebecca Stewart, co-founder and GM of Pomegranate Kitchen.

PartnersJune 23, 2017

Pomegranate Kitchen’s Rebecca Stewart on how food can change the world

Rebecca Stewart, co-founder and GM of Pomegranate Kitchen.
Rebecca Stewart, co-founder and GM of Pomegranate Kitchen.

Today, as part of a week-long series chatting to Wellingtonians about what they’re up to in the windy city, Alex Casey talks to Rebecca Stewart of Pomegranate Kitchen about social enterprise and doing good in the community, one meal at a time.

It’s 8am on a Friday, and it doesn’t take long to start talking refugee quotas. “It is just so embarrassingly low” says Rebecca Stewart, co-founder of Pomegranate Kitchen, “the number of people that we take, per capita, it’s a shameful thing.” We are sitting at a table in Aduli’s kitchen, a restaurant on Tory Street that Pomegranate Kitchen occupy in the wee small hours. Launched only seven months ago, the socially-minded catering business employees former refugees as cooks.

On any given day, the kitchen is humming with a mix of people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Ethiopia. Today, the cooks are making hundreds of baklava for a Ted event on the weekend, shaping them to look like sausage rolls, and making a sweet coulis that you could be fooled into thinking was faithful old Wattie’s. It’s a huge operation, luckily many of the women involved are used to large scale catering for weddings and events around 500-600 people. A Ted talk pales in comparison.

Rebecca Stewart, co-founder and GM of Pomegranate Kitchen. Photo: Sean Aickin.

Co-founder Rebecca Stewart is about as Wellingtonian as it gets. She grew up in Hataitai, went to Wellington High School and St Mary’s College, before studying at Victoria University. After a stint on the super yachts in the mediterranean, and a few years working for Ministry of Health in Melbourne, she returned to Wellington after being diagnosed with breast cancer. As she was coming out of chemotherapy, she was working at the Red Cross, taking it easy in administration. She assures she is “all good” now. 

At the Red Cross, Rebecca saw a need for employment options that are more purpose built to suit the skills of former refugees resettling in New Zealand. “A lot of the job pathways were around fitting people from refugee backgrounds into mainstream jobs, instead of thinking what their needs were.” Two years later, Pomegranate Kitchen has a waitlist of people wanting to jump into the kitchen and get cooking.

With an hour spare and some delicious baklava to snack on, I talked to Rebecca about New Zealand’s attitude to former refugees, not running marathons and the importance of the kitchen as a social space. 

So do all the cooks get to bring their local cuisine ideas to the kitchen on the regular? What are the star dishes?

We have a set menu. Of the recipes that we have, some of them are unchanged, and some of them we have tweaked a little bit to make more sense for a Kiwi palette. We have workshopped things. People bring in menu items and we workshop them, or we just go ‘yeah that is great’.

The baklava that they are making today belongs to Hajar, who is from Iran. We sell falafel wraps, and chicken wraps, and the bread wrap we make is her recipe. She started a pita bread business when she was a refugee in Indonesia, when she was waiting to come here. Now that goes out every day. That is her own recipe. We have these spinach pies that are really popular that are a Syrian recipe from Muna, one of our other cooks. They have been on the menu since the very start. Everyone loves those. 

Muna Al Naser in the kitchen. Photo: Sean Aickin.

We do these tahini cookies, they are really good. We’ve got one cook from Ethiopia. One time, we did a lunch special of her food with the sour bread – the injera – which is funny because I really love it, but some people find it really sour. Because not many people are doing Ethiopian here, that was kind of exciting for people.

What is the significance of food being such a bridge between cultures and understanding?

I guess food provides that shared experience that can often be really hard to come by. People, myself included, sometimes feel really shy because we think we might offend, or we might say the wrong thing. When you are talking to someone who has been through so much there is no way you could connect with them, there is no way you could ever know. Food is such a simple and beautiful shared thing. It is a great connector and leveller.

What other skills can be gained from working at Pomegranate Kitchen?

A big part of what we do is to upskill our home cooks to work in a commercial kitchen. All that means is a focus on health and safety and stock management, and following recipes rather than just kind of guessing. When you are cooking at home you just cook instinctively, but in a kitchen it has to be to a recipe. We have to order and we have to budget and it always have to be consistent. That has been a really interesting learning. 

Alex Casey talks to Rebecca Stewart in Aduli’s. Photo: Sean Aickin.

It is a really fun and happy kitchen. There is a lot of laughing and chilling out, which is the way it is in their own kitchens as well. When we first imagined this, we thought we could skill people up to go and work in other kitchens. What we have seen is they really want to stay with us, and that it would be difficult to push them into a more traditional kitchen. There, it is extremely hierarchical, you get shouted at all the time, and you have to move really fast. This is a different beast.

And on the flipside – what have you learned from Pomegranate? 

It’s just been such a whirlwind. I definitely didn’t know how much work it would be to have your own business.The funny thing is I am not a very good cook, so sometimes I will just look around and think: it is so audacious that we are trying to make this catering company. I have really learned a lot of cooking skills from them. I am much better at making hummus now than I used to be, that is for sure.

This is what I am doing a TED talk about, the biggest learning for me has been about the business brains of our cooks. When we designed it we really wanted to have a strength-based thing. It’s not like we were making this thing for these “poor little refugees”. I had always thought they would come in and leave again, but they are really invested in the business. They really have so much advice for me, and they really want it to succeed. This is something we are all doing together.  

How big of a part has the wider Wellington community played in supporting you?

We started off with a crowdfunding campaign with PledgeMe. That was just really heartening to see how things took off, there was a lot of support behind that. I think that people really wanted to help but maybe didn’t know how. I saw that at the Red Cross as well – so many people were wanting to volunteer, or give goods, and things like that. There is untapped need in the Wellington community to connect and help in some way.

As well as the crowd funding campaign, we have also had people donating mint from their garden, and blenders, and offering to help in a number of different areas of their expertise. I continue to be blown away by that, it is really affirming. My brother is a musician, and he feels the same thing in his world; there is that really supportive family feeling. Your elbows aren’t out, and everyone is looking how they can help each other or introduce you to someone else that could help.

Having that communal space of the kitchen, were you aware of the value of that a social space from the beginning?

Yeah, that is one of our outcomes. The things that we are trying to make happen are increased skills, better financial situation, and better social connections. That is different for each of the cooks. Some of the cooks already have quite a strong community in their flats, or in their ethnic group. That is not such a big deal for them. But there is lots of fun times and laughs in the kitchen.

Hajar Mazraeh, Genet Seyoum, Muna Al Naser in the kitchen. Photo: Sean Aickin.

Some of our cooks are quite isolated if they don’t have family here, and they are shy. People can really benefit a lot from coming here and having that connection every day, instead of just sitting in the house. In fact, a couple of months ago, one of our cooks came in and when she wasn’t rostered to work. She came into the warm kitchen and chatted with one of the other cooks, and then just started cooking.

I was like “you know you aren’t working today? I can’t pay you for today.” And she was like, “oh no it’s fine.”

What else can people do to help former refugees?

People want to volunteer, which is awesome. But, at the moment, the best way to help is to think of us for your catering, or your lunches. Support us in that way that you would normally support a business.

I guess the secondary thing is around having conversations with your friends and family about what people from a refugee background can bring and the nuance and the diversity of their experience and how valuable that is.

What about… changing policy?

We don’t get into that much. Certainly, I was outed on Newshub as supporting Double the Quota. I have my personal views, and the cooks do as well, but our slice of the comms pie is basically around telling those positive stories. Keep on talking about what people can bring, rather than the political stuff.

I am happy to say that I support doubling the quota and support really smart and innovative strategies like this one to try. There’s also thinking in different and creative ways about resettlement, and how we can welcome people if the quota gets increased.

In terms of the social enterprise space it is the eternal struggle and balance of can you make money and profit and also do good at the same time. How do you keep that in check?

It is a tough one. The big things with social enterprise is: how many of your values do you whittle away to drive profit, because you are always having those two hats on. The thing for us, because we are working with humans, our values always do need to come first. What’s best for our cooks always comes first.

So yeah, sometimes we have to apply for funding to keep the lights on. That is just the way that it has to go. We have been really lucky that the WCC has supported us in the past, and we are only in start up phase as well. I worry about our profits a lot. I worry about our bottom line. But when it comes to those decisions about how to run the business properly, it is never a question, it’s all about the people.

Muna Al Naser in the kitchen. Photo: Sean Aickin.

What’s next for Pomegranate Kitchen?

We are moving into a new kitchen next week. We’ve been share this kitchen at Aduli’s but we are moving into our own, out the back of Mojo on Bond St. They have moved into a much better kitchen and we are getting their medium sized one. But it is all of our own, and we have been waiting for that since we started. What that will mean is we will be able to increase our capacity and that will hopefully mean greater staff numbers, or give our current staff full time work. That’s super exciting.

We would really like to run some training courses for people with refugee backgrounds, and do that in a more finite way, maybe leading up to a fundraising dinner or something like that. We are quite cognisant that the reach is quite limited and we want to help as many people as possible. That said, if people want to stay with us, we can’t chuck them out. So we’re thinking more creatively about how to reach more people from refugee backgrounds. We’re thinking about moving into frozen meals or sauces, diversifying our food.

What do you do when you aren’t here? When you aren’t running your business?

This is all I do! What do i do?! I do normal things. I go out for dinner and drink wine and hang out with friends. I don’t have many hobbies at the moment. This is kind of what I do. This is socialising. I just do this, and scroll through Facebook with a wine in hand.

At least you’re honest. Are there other sectors that you think a similar initiative like this could work in?

The really clear one that a couple of people are working on at the moment is sewing. Sewing clothes, or sewing homewares and things like that. It is a thing a couple of people have approached me about and I think one is going to launch pretty soon. That has been a really cool experience, to lend whatever little learnings we have had in our first seven months to other people who want to do that same thing in a different sector.

That is just the first one that comes to mind. There is a whole lot of potential in people with refugee backgrounds, we just have to get to know them and think about what that is. For example, I know someone who is from Iran and is starting a saffron importing business. Stuff like that – why the fuck not? If you’ve those contacts and it is something he is interested in, it is about figuring out what those skills and interests are.

What other barriers are faced by former refugees that those of us who have lived here forever might not necessarily understand or be aware of?

The main ones around language and navigating our systems, especially things like Work and Income and even paying bills and so forth. Kiwis are friendly but they also don’t like being awkward, or having confrontation, so sometimes there is that little barrier where they are worried they might do it wrong or I might say the wrong thing.

I think that is the same in every culture, it is really difficult to bridge that gap until you have a reason to bridge it. It is easier to say hello and leave it at that, it is hard to try and really connect with someone from a different culture, but worth it when you do.  

What’s missing from the public conversation around refugees in New Zealand?

There are three things, two of them we have already talked about. It is clear that we have fallen way behind internationally in terms of the number of refugees that we take, but that is not really acknowledged. Secondly, we need to focus on the nuance of what people can bring to the country, instead of what they cost to resettle.

Thirdly, what’s missing is the real happiness and energy that people bring to New Zealand. The cooks love New Zealand and they are really happy to be here. It is not so much just the New Zealand media, but the media in general have this perception of terrorism, and former refugees being ungrateful and sticking in their groups and not learning English. That has not been my experience at all. I’ve seen a lot of resilience, and a lot of love for New Zealand.

Ten years time, what do you think Pomegranate Kitchen and broader Wellington looks like?

I think we’ll continue focussing on consuming less, and consuming ethically. It is that whole question about how to consume less, not just consuming well. I would like to see people from refugee backgrounds, especially in Pomegranate Kitchen, and more generally, in more management positions and really being upskilled to take the lead, as well as having the programmes made for them. That’s it I think.

Oh – hopefully it is all cyclists and there are no cars. Except for me, because I need my delivery car.

My last question is – what else should I do here before I go to have the full Wellington experience?

When visitors first come here, I like to take them up Mt Vic so they can get a feel of where everything is. And then my favourite things I guess are going out to the South Coast. There is a new place that has just opened that is vegan or vegetarian. I think it is called The Botanist. If you go to Lyall Bay there are some beautiful cafes. Or, just around the corner there is a little cafe and bookstore called Ekor and they sell Leed Street Bakery cookies, get a salted caramel cookie.

It’s intimate. It’s exhilarating. It’s life, served fresh.

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