So let’s start by you telling us a little about yourself, your story, in as much detail as you desire.
Okay, my name is Max Zimani, I’m Zimbabwean by birth and I came to what was then Yugoslavia to study computer science. After my studies I worked for a number of translation companies, before joining a software development company as a technical writer. This was 1987. Basically, I rose through the ranks and became a project manager in the same company, and I left in 2009. All along I was active in the NGO sector, as president of the Association of Africans in Slovenia from 2006 to 2010. In 2010 the Global Institute of Slovenia was founded, which deals primarily with global learning. It was through this institute that we started Skuhna.
Tell us more about Skuhna.
Skuhna is meant to empower migrants through culinary work. It’s also a social business, and we have other projects, one of which involves puppets. It has the same basic aim, to raise the employability of migrants. In this they learn the skill of puppetry, and now some give performances in streets and schools. This project is about to end. Skuhna itself was started 2012, it is a three year project fudned by the ministry of labour in Slovenia. We now have six employed migrants who all first underwent courses and training. What we do is provide quality and authentic food. Every day at Skuhna you find something different. Today it is Indian food, tomorrow Colombian, and the day after we have Kenyan food. We are unique in Slovenia. So unique that two other countries have since started similar projects. One is up and running in the Czech Republic, and on our opening a Serbian girl came and expressed an interest in starting something in Serbia, which she is currently working on.
What are some of the barriers migrants face in the Slovene job market?
The normal barriers are language, culture, also maybe level of education. In our specific case, none of these is a barrier. All we need from them is that they can cook food from their country of origin well, and that they can communicate with an audience. Skuhna isn’t just about food, it is about the stories of the food, the people who prepare it, the countries it comes from, the pots that are used. It is all about the story. Skuhna is all about enlightening people to the realities of other countries, through food, migrant empowerment and global education.
Who are your major clientele? Slovenes? Tourists? Do you find this process to be education for Slovenes as well?
So far we’ve had our fair share of tourists, but it has been mostly Slovenes. As we have only just started, tourists don’t really know about us. Hopefully this will change.
That’s where we come in.
Exactly. The educational side of Skuhna is relevant to everyone.
How did you find Yugoslavia as it was for a migrant? Was it a welcoming environment?
Actually that is a very interesting question. Yugoslavia was more welcoming then than Slovenia is today. Yugoslavia was a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, so everyone who came in was a brother. Of course, if you go into details, people were less informed and there were a lot of stereotypes, just as there is today. Today, Slovenia is still relatively closed, which is unfortunate. Lots of Slovenes travel now, especially young Slovenes, and I believe with the exposure Slovenes are having and the many activities going on with other organisations, the situation is bound to get better.
Did you expect it to get better quicker?
To be honest, I don’t have many expectations. Whatever comes, comes. What we do with our activities is try and show people a mirror to themselves, to open them up, so that if someone is racist, it can’t be blamed on ignorance.
Without too much talk of politics, the recent European Parliamentary elections saw something of a rise of the right. Have you noticed much of a change here? How much of a worry is this trend?
Actually, it is a worry. The European Parliament is very important. Fortunately these groups here are not so well organised, they have no common platform, which is good for us. At the end of the day, I believe that even if the centre-left were the majority it wouldn’t make so much of a difference. I have a feeling that sometimes the right declares policies that are less friendly to migrants, but many times the left don’t declare but implement these policies anyway. You can see this with Labour in Britain and even in Israel.
The centre has moved. Back to Skuhna, you mentioned it is a three-year project. What happens at the end of the three years?
At the end we hope to have a strong enough basis to sustain ourselves. We aren’t there yet, we can’t fully support ourselves without public funding. We hope to have a strong enough clientele to sustain ourselves. The way I envisage it, the cooks and waiters will be able to sustain themselves from the business, where as the management team should receive public funds to run this as well as other projects. So we are working on self-sustainment, but we aren’t there yet.
It’s a long process. Since starting Skuhna has there been any food you hadn’t come across that really surprised you?
A lot of different ones, each country has its own surprises. Every day is a bit of a surprise here. Of late, the most surprising for me was the way in which food from Colombia was prepared, it was not as spicy as I imagined. This is all down to it being prepared authentically; we do not add more spices just to make it taste more exotic. We do things as genuinely as possible.
Just like it is being cooked at home?
Exactly. Other than that, I am surprised at the way Okra is used in Kenyan, Indian and South American food. In Zimbabwe it is considered poor mans food, but this isn’t true in other cultures, it is used to much. I’m also surprised at the number of ways in which certain foods are prepared. Okra again, I knew of one way in which it was prepared, but there are so many different processes for cooking it. It’s been a learning process for me also, a very enjoyable one.
Long may the enjoyment continue. I’ll let you escape to your child now. Thanks Max, all the best.
Thank you very much.
We also spoke briefly to Om Raj, the head of the Skuhna kitchen. A passionate and infectious man, Om told us his story as well as his plans for the future. This is how it went.
Your turn now Om. Tell us your life story, from the first day to the current day.
So my name is Om Raj, and I am from India. I’m not from a big city, I’m from a town. A small town. It is a surprise that I’ve ended up here. When I was studying I started working very early.
Too early! When I was 15, I decided to move and work, so I went to Punjab. When I went to Punjab I was very shy, and I ended up working with a guy in marketing. We were taught door-to-door, office-to-office, up and up. I was offered a lot of money to stay and work there, but my goal was something different. I came home, spent two months sitting around spending money, I realised it wasn’t for me so I decided to move. I went to Goa, which was paradise for me. Whilst in Goa, I told my friend that one day I would own a restaurant there. He laughed, but three or four years later, I did. I was running a hotel, and I met my girlfriend. We came to Slovenia on holiday in 2007. Between 2007 and 2010 I visited on a tourist visit. On December 24th 2010, I decided to move here.
Why did you decide to move here?
I have a son, and education here is much better. I spent two years learning Slovenian, and I must say the Slovene language is one of the most difficult!
I’ve been here a few months and I’ve learnt nothing. How is your Slovenian?
Hah, very good in comparison! No, it is good, I can understand 95% of what is said, I studied well. I gave cooking classes, and then Skuhna found me. I’ve been here from the beginning. When we started, what you see around us was very different; it looked like animals lived here. Everything we have we did ourselves. Now we are on track, and I hope it will survive. We are fighting.
Are you confident of its survival?
Yes, I am. It is going somewhere, and if it doesn’t then it’ll go my way.
Dare I ask?
My way would just mean that I would run it!
How about Slovenia? What are your thoughts on the country, the people? Is it a good country for a migrant?
I think so. It is safe, nice, beautiful. It isn’t a great place for money, but everything else is fine. People are a still a little unsure of migrants. Six months ago things were a little different, people were more open-minded, but now they are a little closed. Nothing has really changed. My friends here are highly-educated, so there are no problems. Some people might be jealous, we left our countries, some people are stuck!
What is your plan? Will you head back to India at some point?
That is our plan. I will move with my wife and my son. We are building a house there, it takes time. We’ll spend six months here, six months there. I’ll always work in this business though, I was born to do this. I love cooking, I cook with passion, I love to follow people. I don’t use the internet or books for recipes, just learn from people. I love to cook.
Addicted to cooking?
There are worse addictions I suppose.
Certainly! The biggest punishment for me is to not cook for one week. When we go on holiday for a week, when we get back I start cooking immediately, even if it is 4am. My wife asks me why I’m cooking, I tell her I’m preparing!
You can find Skuhna on Trubarjeva cesta, number 56, so pop in for a quality authentic meal or one of the many culinary workshops they run. Head to the website for more information.