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Estonian food: inspired by the dark arts

In 2003, Chef René Redzepi opened Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant that made headlines for its artfully plated morsels of seasonal, sustainable ingredients (at eyewatering prices). But, while Redzepi’s New Nordic style held the spotlight, winning the World’s Best Restaurant accolade four times between 2010 and 2014, a quieter food revolution was brewing across the Baltic Sea.

Estonia’s capital city Tallinn now has a fine-dining scene to compete with Copenhagen’s, thanks to a new generation of chefs seeking a homegrown culinary identity – via lake fish, foraged herbs, fermented berries and wild game from the forests that cover 90% of the country. Centuries-long occupation by neighbouring powers, including the Nazi and Soviet rulers of the 20th century, left Estonians with an amalgamated diet of sauerkraut, chicken kiev and herring. But the New Nordic food revolution in Denmark mirrored the way rural Estonians had always eaten, regardless of governing bodies. In recent years, those traditions of fermenting, smoking, foraging and hunting have been brought out of the woodwork – after decades, if not centuries, of neglect.

On 28 and 29 May, the Bocuse d’Or chef championships take place in Tallinn, marking the city’s initiation onto the culinary world stage. Here are the five restaurants that are pioneering the new wave of Estonian cooking, and the five sets of ingredients that have come to define their tastes.

From black garlic to billy goats, it’s a wild ride.

Foraged mushrooms at NOA Chef’s Hall

Named the number-one Baltic restaurant by the current White Guide to Nordic dining, this space – a 15-minute drive out of Tallinn proper – overlooks the sea through floor-to-ceiling windows and sets the scene for Estonia’s most ambitious fusion food. Head chef Orm Oja was born the year that the Soviet Union collapsed.

“The Danes invented Nordic cuisine when they started fermenting and foraging, but we had never lost sight of that culture in Estonia. When the Soviet era ended, there was a new freedom for chefs wanting to express themselves,” Oja says. “We forage. Even my little sister knows everything about mushrooms.”

Black garlic chocolate and smoking pine at Restoran Ö

In Tallinn city centre, one passionate and patriotic chef brings to the capital the flavours of the cold sea, dark forests, clean air and black soil of his native Saaremaa Island, off the west coast of Estonia.

“I only use 100% Estonian ingredients,” says Martin Meikas, whose experimental dishes use smoking pine cones to evoke the scent of the forest, and infuse chocolate with native black garlic. “I’m influenced by the history of our country, doing lots of fermenting and smoking. After the end of the Soviet Union, it was all, ‘Let’s make pasta, pizza, then fine dining, then street food’. Now we’ve done everything and everyone has calmed down, we’re going back to our roots.”

Summer berries (in winter) at Põhjaka Manor

This renovated manor house, an hour’s drive from Tallinn, was inspired by the Italian tradition of rural farmhouse restaurants, but has distinctly Estonian features. The cellar is packed with jars of preserved jams and pickles; outside, sheep graze and chickens scratch the ground between the herb garden and vegetable patch. In a small onsite distillery, gins are infused with rowan berries and sea buckthorn.

“In Estonia, we say we only have three months of bad skiing weather each year,” laughs co-owner Mart Metsallik. “It’s logical to cook seasonally and Estonians have always made preserves for the winter from things that are fresh in the summer. In fact, the Soviet times helped preserve that tradition, because we had nothing in the shops from the outside world.”

Rye bread at Leib

The highlight of this leafy spot on the edge of Tallinn Old Town isn’t its wonderfully fresh, seasonal, local ingredients, but its namesake: the black rye bread that comes with every dish and translates as leib. It’s the one constant in the everchanging seasonal menu.

“Rye bread has fed Estonians for nearly 10 centuries, which is why we proudly call it our national food,” says head chef Janno Lepik. “There are two kinds of black bread today. One of them is a sour rye bread, like ours, which is flavoured with different spices and seeds, and has a sour taste thanks to the fermented leaven. The other kind is considerably darker and sweeter in taste, which is due to the added sugar and malt.”

Whole goat’s head at Juur

All exposed brickwork and rustic ceramics, the swish dining room at Juur wouldn’t look amiss in Copenhagen – and head chef Kaido Metsa shares Danish trailblazer Rene Redzepi’s focus on the local and the sustainable, sourcing 90% of his ingredients from his own kitchen garden and the surrounding farms and forests. His signature dish comes from a nearby goat’s milk farm, for example.

“The male goats were useless to them,” says Metsa. “It doesn’t make sense to only use the best cuts of the animal when we have world hunger. I buy the male goats’ heads and we serve them with a story.”

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Soul food: social street food in Paris

The air in the crowded square is thick with the scent of spices. Children chase giant, rainbow-tinted bubbles in the sun, while hip-hop reverberates between a clutter of makeshift stalls and vintage trucks, all displaying their wares on handwritten signs: there are Moroccan lamb kofte pancakes, Senegalese chicken curries and Thai-marinated skewers, the occasional crêpe thrown in for good measure.

On the surface, this gathering outside an old warehouse at Halle Pajol, near Paris’s Gare du Nord, appears entirely unremarkable – after all, such markets have long been a firm fixture in the likes of London, Amsterdam and Berlin – but Street Popote (which roughly translates as ‘street grub’) is special for two reasons.

For a start, it was only last summer that the French capital welcomed its first ever food-truck event in the form of Le Food Market, in Belleville, which drew over 8,000 visitors to just 15 stands selling foods from 15 different countries. It proved that after years of grudging resistance, the French had finally succumbed and started to embrace the global phenomenon.

But such events are still something of a novelty here. “We are really brilliant at food, but we’re traditional and there’s always some reluctance to new things,” explains Lionel Guérin, founder of Street Popote. “But in the past few years, Paris has become much more dynamic and suddenly street food is exploding.”

Street Popote can claim to be the city’s second street-food event, but it is also doing something that goes way beyond simply giving Parisians the opportunity to eat global cuisines. Each stall has a social project attached to it, incorporating communities and cuisines that rarely figure in Paris’s somewhat elite restaurant scene.

“There are a lot of talented people here who don’t have the opportunity to express it,” says Guérin. “I want to draw attention to them – and if I can help to show how enriching and tasty cultural diversity really is, I can go to bed each night and sleep very well.”

Now let’s meet some of those talented people…

The business innovators

In the heart of the busy market, Street Popote’s largest stall is engulfed in a haze of smoke. It’s pouring out from a sizzling grill stacked with Thai chicken satay and Senegalese beef skewers, diligently watched over by young chefs Jiap and Nesta. Beside them, on a polka-dot tabletop, a salad of marinated fish and papaya is prepared by Crystelle, originally from the Central African Republic.

These women are entrepreneurs with plans to open restaurants and catering businesses, and they’re here thanks to Paris’s only state-subsidised kitchen incubator: Plaine de Saveurs.

In the north-eastern suburb of Saint Denis, the nonprofit provides space for aspiring chefs to trial recipes and gain business advice. Each ‘incubee’ uses the kitchen for six months at the cost of just €200 a month – about the same amount as renting a parking space in the city.

“In central Paris, the international restaurant offering is very poor – mainly just kebabs, pizza and sushi,” claims Bertrand Allombert, who launched the incubator programme back in 2013, “but there are 140 nationalities in Saint Denis alone. We try to work with people who don’t have enough money to invest in or sustain a business.”

As far as Allombert is concerned, creating a market – rather than competing with the types of cuisine that dominate the capital’s food scene – is good business sense, but it’s also a way of encouraging interaction between different local communities.

“When people eat each other’s food, they have a better cultural understanding,” he smiles. “Food is peace.”

The gourmet grannies

The nutty-sweet smell of browning butter catches in the breeze as Patricia Pastrana pours a ladle of batter into a frying pan. To her right is the crêpe filling responsible for the stall’s long queue – salted caramel. Born in Argentina, Pastrana married a Frenchman 40 years ago and has lived in Brittany ever since. Today marks her fi rst shift with Mamie Foodie, a catering company where grannies rule. Set up in 2015, Mamie Foodie was inspired by Asian street-food culture, which often sees older women touting street-side specialities.

“This isn’t just a business – it’s also a social project,” says cofounder Johanna Pestour. “In France, over a million pensioners from all different backgrounds say they feel isolated. Cooking with us gives them a chance to get out of their homes and have a validated place in society again.”

Anyone over 60 can apply to work with Mamie Foodie – the only requirement is the ability to cook for 15 people or more, with recipes that they bring with them from their respective home countries including Martinique, Sri Lanka and Mauritius. Th e 12 grandmothers and three grandpas with their eclectic recipes have proved a big hit at the events that Mamie Foodie caters for – as have the cooks themselves, who happily share their tips during the cross-generational natter that accompanies each event. For Pestour, it’s this social element that confirms exactly why she set up the project in the first place.

“We learn so much from these grandparents and we know that cooking with us can change their lives, too,” she says.

The culinary fixer

“i was born in Marrakech, but grew up in France,” says Asmâa Benhamra. “I never had problems integrating, but I realised the main thing people associate with Morocco is its food and the reason it’s so good is because there’s a beautiful culture behind it. I decided it was time to show that.”

Last year, she created La Table d’Asmâa, catering events with modern Moroccan canapés and holding workshops to teach children about North African history and culture via its food.

She also runs Gratin d’Emploi, a networking event that puts recruiters and long-term job-seekers into a kitchen together, in a bid to take the pressure off and try to address the unemployment cycle.

Today’s menu features chicken tagine with olives, preserved lemons and potatoes; chicken and thyme-stuffed pastry parcels; roast-vegetable couscous; and mini sugar-glazed cakes, traditionally eaten during Ramadan. Each ingredient holds a significance for Benhamra, who believes that recipes passed from generation to generation are a mirror of the cultures they belong to.

“Take the simplest of ingredients: tomatoes and peppers,” she says. “Every country has a different way of preparing them, with their own spices and flavours, but the base is the same.” For Benhamra, this is a metaphor for people, and food is an effective medium for bridging any cultural gaps. “Whatever religious or political differences we might have, deep down everyone is the same and one thing we can all do is appreciate good food together.”

The community artists

A bubbling pan of spiced sauce, spoon outstretched.

“Have a taste,” grins Mam Fedior, chef at Pitch Me, a West African restaurant in Paris’s buzzing République quarter. His stall at Street Popote is serving steaming bowls of his native Senegalese chicken yassa, a citrussy, fragrant curry, with green and red peppers adding colour to the chargrilled meat. “As soon as people taste this food, it brings them together – just look at us,” he laughs.

Fedior’s gesturing to his business partner, writer and documentary filmmaker Karim Miské, who was born in Paris to a Mauritanian father. Together with French journalist Sonia Rolley, the three friends opened a restaurant in 2012 that combined their talents, matching Fedior’s homegrown cuisine with a passion for film showings, concerts and book readings.

“The idea was to attract a new kind of clientele and bring West African food to a broader audience, rather than simply serving one community,” explains Miské. Events at their restaurant include book-reading sessions for unpublished authors and experimental film and documentary screenings, all accompanied by Fedior’s delicious dishes and refreshing juices made from hibiscus flower, ginger and tamarind. The diverse crowd settles in, with the act of sharing their creative projects over food helping to break down social barriers.

“When you eat dishes like yassa, you know there’s a long history behind them and you connect to it,” says Miské. “You don’t have to make some kind of political point about being ‘open to otherness’. When you eat together, it just comes naturally.”

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Has French hip hop lost its bad rap?

From the outside, it’s just another polished window in a row of commercial façades: Sephora, Lacoste, KIKO. But behind two sliding glass doors, a dance off is in session. Rapper Sofiane’s throaty growl reverberates from a boombox as dancers in snapbacks pop and lock to a whooping crowd and a backdrop of neon-coloured, spray-painted walls. It’s a Wednesday afternoon at La Place Centre Culturel Hip Hop, France’s first cultural centre dedicated entirely to hip hop in all its forms, from rap to street dance, graffiti to fashion.

Opened last October in the controversial Les Halles shopping mall – currently emerging from an eight-year, €1 billion reconstruction – the space comprises a gig venue (Oddisee & Good Company kick off this month); an auditorium for conferences and documentary screenings; recording, DJ and dance studios; and a co-working space. What makes La Place ground-breaking is that it was conceived of and largely funded by the Paris mayor’s office, marking a seismic shift away from France’s previous government rhetoric – past politicians have publicly blamed rappers’ lyrics for social unrest, at times even in court.

It comes at a revolutionary moment for French rap, with the country’s hottest artists using streaming sites such as Deezer and Spotify to challenge the status quo. Rap duo PNL, from the south Paris suburb Corbeil-Essonnes, exploded onto the scene in 2015 as a YouTube sensation. They’ve never done an interview or signed to a label – yet they topped the iTunes album chart last November. “Only hip hop artists are this entrepreneurial,” claims director of La Place, hip hop guru Jean-Marc ‘JM’ Mougeot, whose past lives as break dancer, DJ, radio producer and festival organiser made him a clear choice for the job. “It means that we’ll always have an interesting angle at La Place, based on each artist’s unique way of doing things.”

Les Halles, too, is a fitting location for La Place. Sitting above Châtelet – the biggest underground station in the world, and the convergence of Paris’s suburban train lines – the site is infamous for spontaneous street dance and music. Nevertheless, the shiny new mall presents a decidedly cleaned-up version of a setting once known for its gritty urban activity. Between La Place’s spotless walls and sunlit, ballet-ready dance studios, none of the socio-political commentary that’s historically characterised hip hop in France is palpable there. You’ve got to wonder: does a state-funded hip hop initiative mark the sanitisation of a genre defined in opposition to the establishment?

“Some artists are chasing an ideal,” contemplates house dancer Babson, who uses the space and is holding dance workshops there this month. “But the fact is that hip hop stopped being underground the moment it arrived on MTV. As soon as you commercialise something, it’s no longer underground.”

For the artists and employees working at La Place, official recognition of hip hop as an influential cultural movement comes not a moment too soon. As Paris’s deputy mayor Bruno Julliard puts it, “there is a strong tradition in France of public finance for cultural endeavours. Hip hop was the only one not yet benefitting from funding.” It’s worth noting, however, that receiving funding from the mayor’s office is still a far cry from winning a Ministry of Culture grant, awarded to more conservative institutions such as the Opéra-Comique and the Philharmonie concert hall.

In any case, for Babson, focusing on the funding misses the point. “Working with an institution is not the same as working for an institution,” he asserts. “And to evolve, you have to understand the structures in place.” OLKM broadcast journalist and rap expert Mehdi Maizi doubts that many young people will even question the centre’s funding, noting that French hip hop has become dramatically depoliticised since the noughties. “Rappers don’t believe in anything anymore – politics, God, love. If young people decide that La Place is cool, they will go there, simple as that.”

Which leaves us with the major challenge facing La Place: how will it appeal to the youngest generation of hip hop fans? In the directors’ efforts to appeal to a cross-generational audience, the programme is in danger of being a bit too old-school. One of its first concerts was by 90s MC KRS-One, who at 51 is ideal nostalgia-trip material – but doesn’t necessarily speak to the banlieue-based teens who listen to PNL, and who the centre ultimately hopes to reach.

“Maybe in 20 years’ time, rap will be like jazz, and old people will listen to it with a brandy while smoking a cigar. But right now, young people make the law,” says Maizi. “If La Place is disconnected from them, then it’s not speaking to the people who listen to hip hop every day. It has to be relevant. Rap can never be boring.”

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How to smash through the glass ceiling: Tel Aviv’s women tech entrepreneurs

A weekday morning on Tel Aviv’s beach promenade. Bronzed 30-somethings jog under brilliant sunshine, preened dogs scurrying at their ankles. Baristas steam lattes and young guys in wetsuits ride the turquoise surf. But behind the pleasure-seeking surface, a quiet revolution is brewing, driven by young entrepreneurs, tapping on laptops and smartphones.

So far, so London or Berlin, you might think, but Tel Aviv differs from its rival tech hubs in one fundamental way (apart from the weather). There are currently over 1,000 startups in the city – fledgling businesses, usually internet based, and often nomadically run from cafés and workspaces around the city. Israel’s tech-obsessed financial centre is the most concentrated startup ecosystem outside of Silicon Valley in California and it’s growing fast: up 40% between 2012 and 2014. What’s more interesting, however, is that 20% of these are now run by women, according to the Compass Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2015 – the highest number of any city outside the USA and beating every European commercial capital. It begs the question: is Tel Aviv one of the best places on Earth to be a woman entrepreneur?

The city has come a long way. In 2012, only 9% of Tel Aviv’s entrepreneurs were female. Israel’s education system and the compulsory military service that all school leavers complete has played a big part in this. Among the various paths these conscripts pursue, the army’s cyber intelligence units are a popular choice and have proven to be a fertile breeding ground for some of the city’s most successful startup entrepreneurs. But with fewer girls studying hard science and maths at school, these units end up being largely male – and many who serve in them also go on to become board members on some of the city’s most influential tech investment bodies. This has, unsurprisingly, caused a powerful old-boy network to be formed – often to the detriment of female entrepreneurs who lack the connections to secure funding.

Enter Hilla Ovil-Brenner, who decidedto build similarly strong networks to give businesswomen a leg up. In summer 2013, she launched a ground-breaking programme called Campus for Moms, at Google’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, in partnership with her friend and business partner, Tal Sarig-Avraham. On the 34th floor of Electra Tower, the Campus is kitted out in Google’s trademark urban design, with vintage lamps spotlighting shared desk spaces.

“The idea came to us when I was on maternity leave and missing intelligent conversation. I kept meeting women who only wanted to talk about diapers,” Ovil-Brenner explains. “Babies are most welcome at Campus for Moms, but here women are encouraged to talk about their startup as well as their baby.”

The 10-week course hosts one meet-up per week, primarily for women on maternity leave who are looking for practical business guidance. As it’s grown in popularity, so has the diversity of applications. “We also have some dads on paternity leave, which is very encouraging,” says Ovil-Brenner. Industry experts and mentors hold workshops and lectures within the cheerful chaos that comes with a room full of infants. “Having major entrepreneurs as speakers changes the way female entrepreneurship is perceived and raises awareness to their need for support,” she says.

At the end of the course, the six most promising graduates pitch their business models to investors. “They are asked some tough questions, but they rock it,” says Sarig-Avraham.

For Ovil-Brenner, watching them develop is an emotional experience: “I cried on the first pitch night, I was so excited,” she admits. And, in less than three years, some 300 entrepreneurs have graduated from the Campus for Moms – and they sing its praises.

“Everything I learned here increased my confidence and success,” says Inbal Miron-Bershteyn, who founded KidkeDoo, a children’s online encyclopaedia. “To be an entrepreneur is like riding a roller-coaster. Having a supportive community that encourages you and believes in you is like the seatbelt that keeps you safe during the ride.”

Orly Shoavi, CEO of SafeDK, already had two young children when she began the programme. “I was concerned about being both highly involved in my kids’ lives and running a demanding business,” she says. “But seeing other moms build their companies and never look back gave me the confi dence to do it. I quit my job soon after.”

It helps that funding bodies are now becoming increasingly aware of the importance of investing in women’s ventures. “If I can help other women, I should. I see it as an obligation,” says Michal Michaeli, who worked her way up in high-tech for 15 years before setting up Eva Ventures in 2012 – a micro venture capital that invests in startups with at least one woman in a leadership role. “The more women there are in business, the easier it becomes to recruit more.”

Michaeli notes how the absence of women in business has its roots in childhood. “The sense you get is that you have to be beautiful and well behaved, not daring and smart,” she observes. “If a young girl is climbing a tree, she is usually told to be careful. If it’s a boy, he’s encouraged to explore and see what his limits are.”

Networking and funding are key, but the third ingredient for a successful startup is available workspace. Entrepreneur Merav Oren opened WMN last summer – a co-working space, which provides a temporary office for predominantly female-led startups. Five main meeting rooms are separated by soundproof glass, with notes scrawled over them in marker pen. The Mediterranean sun floods the desktops with natural light and weekly workshops and networking events are held by lawyers, tech experts and established entrepreneurs.

“It started because, as an entrepreneur myself, I felt alone working from home. I wanted to be surrounded by other women like me,” says Oren. “The only difference between WMN and any other co-working place is that I reach out and look for these women.” And they are happy to be found. During the first six months the space was open, it received over 100 applications from brand-new businesses needing desk space.

What of the women using WMN? “It makes a huge difference,” says client Limor Shilony, cofounder of a new app called Pauzz that helps dieters to manage cravings. “We inspire and help each other. It’s nice to see so many working towards their dreams.”

Ovil-Brenner also believes the environment fosters the different skills that women bring to the table, compared to their male counterparts: “Sensitivity, emotional intelligence, intuition and lack of ego.”

It’s easy to understand how quickly these powerful initiatives can shape the narrative in a small city of 400,000 residents. “We’re inside a revolution at the moment,” smiles Ovil-Brenner. “One day, someone will look back on 2015 and 2016 and say, ‘What a change those years made in women’s lives’.”