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Cooking as a social art

Summary of Cuisine Lab cofounder Dan Stein's urbanology talk on the 5th April 2022.

All of Dan Stein’s projects happen through encounters. During the 2015 migration crisis, he was in Greece where he met two Syrian families in Athens. They had a small amount of money - worth just one month of rent. From this tiny capital they nurtured a beautiful project: ‘Options Food Lab’. It started when Dan went to meet them for a brainstorming session and experienced first- hand their talent for cooking. He saw potential right away - “We could sell this meal”. A priest from Athens, helped them find space in a church for a community dinner which saw about a 100 people attending and an enthusiastic local press covering the event.

Soon, more such events followed. Beyond the fact that it provided livelihood for these two entrepreneurial families, the dinners were vital moments of human encounters between the local population and the newly arrived refugees.

Dan lives in Geneva and his experience with the ‘Options Food Lab’ in Athens made him eager to understand Geneva’s refugee situation. Back from Athens, he found out that the asylum system in Geneva had its own problems. A lot of refugees, some suffering severe psychological stress, were provided space outside the city in nuclear shelters and fed with microwave meals. The first event Dan organised, with some Afghan refugees, was a dinner in Les Grottes. The social venture ‘Cuisine Lab’ took shape.

Highlighting dignity and agency, the dinner wasn't designed as a charity event, but as an entrepreneurial venture. Tickets sold out fast, revealing a real interest from the city. After the success of the first event, others were organised by different communities, all around specific culinary challenges. In one of them, people had to bring their favorite ingredients where everyone spent a night trying to make a meal out of whatever people brought. The preparations were mostly good and the social ties created were precious. Dan calls it “social art” : where the process of human involvement and interaction is more worthwhile than the result.

Cooking is a special social art, because of its universality : it can help bring vastly different people together. Be it representatives of family businesses, or the latest president of the Swiss confederation, Ignacio Casis, ‘Cuisine Lab’ has helped foster moments of encounter and recognition between all those who would ordinarily never meet..

A highlight for ‘Cuisine Lab’ was the opening of their very own restaurant in the Cité Internationale, a new neighbourhood of Geneva - opening in January 2023. However, this act of recognition by the Foundation Terra and Casa, which chose the socially-oriented enterprise for the ground floor of their new building, also sparked new challenges.

How does one keep the artistic facet of the project, preserve its uniqueness and avoid becoming a restaurant like any other? How does one leave some space for the unknown - for freedom and change - if everything has to be planned years ahead in a business plan? Some participants joked that they should forget about a business plan, while others suggested, more seriously, to focus on the hospitality and process of ‘Welcoming’ as a core part of the restaurant. Since the essence of the project is to give voice to actors who couldn’t express it otherwise, this should be seen as an uncompromising component of the project.

There is a lot cooking with Dan Stein - and more is on the way!

Dan Stein is a social artist and entrepreneur who has launched and runs different community oriented projects, such as the ‘Options Food Lab’ in Athens, the Geneva based ‘Cuisine Lab’ and the restaurant and cultural hub - ‘AGORA’.


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