Visible Women

Why Iranian chef Nasrin Rooghani is Stylist’s Woman of the Week

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Moya Crockett
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. This week, we’re celebrating Mazí Mas chef Nasrin Rooghani. 

When Nasrin Rooghani first moved to London in 1999, she was miserable. She’d trained as a psychologist in her native Iran, and built a successful career working with children with special needs. But her Iranian qualifications meant little in the UK, she wasn’t yet fluent in English, and she had small children to look after. Together, these factors made it almost impossible for her to find a job.

Unable to build a community or find a sense of purpose through work, Rooghani felt increasingly isolated. “I had all these reasons to stay at home,” she says. “And it just made me really depressed.”

But that was years ago. Today, Rooghani doesn’t stay at home. Instead, she is a chef at Mazí Mas, a roaming restaurant and social enterprise staffed entirely by migrant and refugee women. The organisation’s chefs cater for private parties and events at institutions including the Tate, Selfridge’s and the Royal Court Theatre, and there is a Mazí Mas stall at Old Spitalfields Market in east London.

As well as cooking and managing events, Rooghani also helps with training, providing the women who work for Mazí Mas with the skills they need to build careers in the restaurant industry and become financially independent.

“We live in a society where pay is not equal and women have fewer job opportunities,” she says. “If your priority is your family – like mine was – and you’re not in the workplace for years, then going back and finding a job is really, really hard. We need organisations like Mazí Mas that help women stand on their own two feet and find their place in the world.”

Nasrin Rooghani (far right) with fellow Mazí Mas chefs Luz and Elahe  

Struggling to re-enter the workforce after taking a break to raise children is an experience familiar to women of all backgrounds. But for the women who work at Mazí Mas, that challenge is compounded by the fact that they often lack social connections, English language skills and qualifications recognised in the UK. As a result, many of them suffer from a serious confidence deficit – something that makes it even more difficult for them to build careers.

“Not understanding a country’s language and culture makes it nearly impossible for women to find jobs,” Rooghani says. She first got involved with Mazí Mas after meeting general manager Roberta Siao at a supper club run by the Iranian Association, where Rooghani was volunteering after being unable to find paid work. Most people don’t understand just how difficult it is to move to a new country and attempt to build a new life, she adds. 

“I didn’t come to England as a refugee; I came with no real problems,” she says. “But I still found it really difficult.” She was shocked when she first worked with refugee women and heard their stories. “They didn’t just decide to leave their country; they were forced to leave because of political issues, because of war.

“These women have gone through so much, and when they come here, they have to prove themselves to the people that are offering them sanctuary,” she continues. “It’s just another challenge, and being homesick doesn’t help. Unless you’ve been through that situation, it’s really hard to understand how tough it is.”

Worrying new research suggests that 40% of people in the UK believe British culture is undermined by multiculturalism. But the success of Mazí Mas is proof that bringing different cultures together can be a joyous, enriching experience. Rooghani works with women from Syria, Hungary, South Sudan, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru; they’ve taught her how to cook food from their home countries, as she has taught them how to make her mum’s Iranian stuffed chicken with pomegranate.

“I think food has its own language. It makes people come together,” she says. “When people taste your food it’s like they’re trying a little bit of your culture, a little bit of your country.”

At Mazí Mas events, Rooghani she sees chefs and clients “having fun, eating, chatting.” It reminds people, she says, that refugees and migrants “are human like them”. Long may it continue.

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Courtesy of Mazí Mas