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Friday January 10, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Friday January 10, 2014 MYT 8:51:20 AM
by kim willsher
New hope: Naima Benazzouz was one of the first women to benefit from the Femmes en Avenir (Women with a Future) scheme that has helped many become gainfully employed.
Three years ago, trainees on a Parisian scheme began to build better lives via haute cuisine.
EVERY day Naima Benazzouz makes a remarkable journey from her home in one of the rundown housing projects in Paris’s outer suburbs to the kitchen at the Hotel Matignon, the official residence of France’s Prime Minister.
Once there, she dons her chef’s whites and toque and helps prepare gastronomic delights for those who walk these Gallic corridors of power.
The Moroccan-born mother-of-three occasionally allows herself a satisfied smile. And this is understandable, because hers is a success story to gladden French hearts, as the country struggles to recover its economic mojo amid high unemployment and widespread pessimism.
“It’s a dream come true. My life has changed completely,” Benazzouz says. “I’ve always liked cooking, but honestly I could never in a million years imagine I’d be working in gastronomy, let alone for the prime minister.”
Benazzouz, 37, was one of the first women to benefit from a scheme to help immigrant women in the city suburbs break out of poverty and unemployment by teaching them haute cuisine.
Femmes en Avenir (Women with a Future) was the brainchild of the multi-starred Michelin chef Alain Ducasse, who wanted to put something back into the industry that had brought him fame and made him a fortune.
Now in its fourth year, the scheme, though heavily oversubscribed, is proving a much-needed beacon in an ocean of unemployment in Sarcelles, where Benazzouz lives, and other “sensitive urban zones” where joblessness hovers just under 23% and those living in poverty top 36%.
Ducasse believes it shows what can be done if everyone involved, including public bodies and private companies, makes an effort. In 2011 Benazzouz was one of 15 women chosen from more than 100 candidates to take a professional cooking course as part of Femmes en Avenir.
They were all immigrants or born to immigrant parents, all previously unemployed or in low-paid jobs, all struggling on benefits or breadline wages. Many of them had never seen, let alone tasted, the ingredients they were expected to work with: one would-be chef from landlocked Mali screamed in terror when confronted with her first lobster.
Inspired by Bill Clinton’s 2005 Global Initiative, Ducasse promised each woman a job in one of his 15 Paris restaurants if they obtained their diploma, in the hope of changing their lives forever.
“It’s not charity and it’s not a cheque,” Ducasse said then. “It’s giving women in very difficult situations the key to improving their lives. It’s not an open door; it’s one that is ajar and we are saying: ‘come in – perhaps we can help you’. The message is: together we can do it.”
When she arrived in France from Marrakech at the age of 23, Benazzouz discovered that her economics diploma counted for nothing. She started again with a management course, but jobs were still hard to come by – even more so after her children were born.
“It was very discouraging,” she admitted.
From the day of the selection interviews, Benazzouz stood out for her motivation and determination to shove Ducasse’s door wide open and walk right in.
“For once, being a woman with children and living in Sarcelles was not a handicap,” she said after being selected to join the scheme. She went on to finish the gastronomy course top of the class, and this brought her several job offers, including one from Matignon.
“Francois Fillon (the former prime minister) came to meet us and promised to take one of us on,” she says. “It certainly changed my life.”
Ana Mic, 41, a trained teacher from Romania, who also has three children, was another of the first Femmes en Avenir intake in 2011. Today she works at one of Ducasse’s Paris restaurants, near the Champs Elysees.
“In Sarcelles life is hard, but you have to get on with it. Here, I am learning new things every day. My project, my dream is to open my own restaurant,” she says.
Another Ducasse graduate, mother-of-four Halima Guimouar, 43, from Algeria, who used to be a cleaner at Charles de Gaulle airport, now runs the delicatessen counter in her local supermarket.
“I wouldn’t have got my job if I hadn’t had the diploma on my CV. Alain Ducasse believed in us and gave us a chance,” Guimouar says.
Christophe Raoux, head chef at the Cafe de la Paix in Paris, who helped train many of the women, said their presence in the kitchen had improved the “macho” atmosphere in gastronomy.
“It’s been a great experience for everyone. We have learned from it and have had the satisfaction of seeing the women learn and realise what a fabulous chance they have been given.”
Of the 40 women from the first three years of the scheme who took their diploma, all passed, and 65% have since found employment.
To the women with a new future, Ducasse is a hero. However, at a ceremony to celebrate the latest intake of haute cuisine students, the master chef was characteristically modest.
“Merci, merci. It’s your success that gives me pleasure,” he told the women. “We had this idea that learning cooking could help women whose situation was complicated, but nobody was sure it would work. Today we know it does.” — Guardian News & Media
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Women, Woman, Alain Ducasse, Empowerment, Culinary
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