Five Minutes with a Legend: Hana Assafiri

Published on 6 October 2021

Photo: Hana Assafiri of Moroccan Soup Kitchen

Melbourne’s Moroccan Soup Bar has been widely regarded for years as a hospitality safe-space, a place that validates women, not to mention a go-to restaurant for locals in search of excellent value for money and an entirely delicious vegetarian feed. And the woman making it happen is Hana Assafiri.

Born in Melbourne, Assafiri spent a large portion of her childhood in Lebanon before coming back to Victoria. The personal hardship and trauma she experienced was something she transformed into a 15-year career in crisis intervention before the lightbulb moment that led to Moroccan Soup Bar, and, since setting up shop in Fitzroy North in 1998, Assafiri has been serving up flavour-packed meals to the masses whilst providing employment opportunities for people marginalised by our society – a situation that has bred a great deal of loyalty from her staff and patrons alike.

A pillar of her community, Assafiri doesn’t stop her work with one restaurant. Through the pioneering success of Moroccan Soup Bar, she has also hosted game-changing events such as Speed Date a Muslim and her Conversation Salons, as well as educational programs with Box Hill Institute.

Hana Assafiri was inducted into the MFWF hall of fame in 2018 for her exceptional social impact and contribution to Melbourne’s hospitality industry.

The proudest moment in my career has been… It’s difficult to define one singular moment. I think for me, having an idea and backing myself with absolute conviction to create an environment that has been so constantly embraced – that is what makes me proud. When I started Moroccan Soup Bar, what I was doing was so outright unconventional (at the time). I was doing it with absolutely no formal training in hospitality, but I knew that the business and model would provide safety for the women who entered our doors. I can proudly say that the initial off-the-bat concept has been a success, one that has empowered women and given validation to what they do and who they are. We’ve been doing this for nearly 25 years, and I am just as proud now as I was then.

The mistake that taught me the most was…I don’t have one big mistake per se. Certainly, in hindsight you can reflect, but I guess because of the way I am, mistakes have rarely been an issue. If (and when) they happened, it’s because of an opportunity to break new ground, and my mistakes have enabled other women to be out there and try things and be respected. They’re not mistakes to me, they’re lessons. I’m okay with mistakes in general. Having said that, the biggest mistake sometimes is to read to an online review and not be able to put a bit of distance between yourself and what someone is saying. It can drive you nuts.

My first job in hospitality/food was opening Moroccan Soup Bar. I never had any idea I would be working in hospitality. Before Moroccan Soup Bar I was working in women’s state services, but I’ve always been attracted to the intimacy and mystery that surrounded a home kitchen full of women. A kitchen has always felt like a safe space for me. So that’s what everything was built on, and that’s why I knew that Moroccan Soup Bar would be the best way for me to do what I wanted to do.

I got into this industry because I came from a community-development background working with women escaping violence and enabling them to be freed from those circumstances. Women have been traditionally conditioned into the home and kitchen in unrewarded roles, so I figured that hospitality was the perfect way to flip that traditional system on its head and have these marginalised women be recognised, trusted, remunerated, and to help them feel validated in what they do.We have never turned a woman away. Even when we don’t need staff or assistance and we don’t have a spot, I have never said no because speaking to the real needs of society through food has allowed us to enrich our business, our teams and our community. Behind the scenes, hospitality has also allowed us to run our Sprout educational program with Box Hill Institute, and to run smaller programs like Speed Date a Muslim. The enrichment from working in this industry doesn’t end.

The reason I stayed was the more issues that arose within society and our direct community, the more that we wanted to help and use food as the platform. Initially, it was women facing a crisis, then Islamophobia. Now, we’re looking at climate, gender, sexuality, reconciliation and our responsibility towards Indigenous Australians. Hospitality is how we do this. While the advent of the pandemic has meant that our formula no longer works, we still found an opportunity to redefine our version of hospitality. That’s what we’ve done, and what we will continue to do.

My mentor is… There have been many, never just one. Often, it’s the women who transform themselves from starting with absolutely nothing into their version of success. Other times it can be the youngest of patrons, or those who don’t fit into society, an African American writer or the character from their book. Maybe I have boundary issues when considering who my mentors are…

If there’s one positive thing to come out of this lockdown experience, I think it’s a moment to pause and reflect on our we treat our staff, our customers, and our planet. Now is the time that it matters to speak to the needs and values of our community.

If I could return to any moment in the Melbourne/Victorian hospitality industry of the last 50 years, I’d choose pre-social media. Sorry! I know that so much greatness has come out of it for others, but I think that it has simply created fads and that it has removed people from real connection (ironic, given that it's supposed to be about connecting with others). I’d also return to a place and time where traditions of hospitality involved your host being politically aware of their environment and when/where they existed. Those hosts were well-informed and able to engage with their patrons in the topics of the day. That, for me, used to be a good host and great hospitality. Whilst I think we’ve progressed in extraordinary ways and the cultural diversity and expression of food has seen amazing growth, with it comes a yearning for a more responsible and caring nature of your staff, for the community, for the environment.

But the most exciting development in the Melbourne/Victorian hospitality industry in the last five years is how this industry is diversifying. The innovation in the last few years has been incredible. I know it has been a response to the pandemic, but I am absolutely loving outdoor dining – it has been one of the best things to happen to the industry and it brings so much joy and life to local businesses and communities. The responsibility that has fallen on the industry to be more innovative when it comes to environmental responses worries me, but it also excites me because there are some extraordinary people out there in our industry, and they’re doing incredible waste-free, carbon-positive things. I know that these ideas will influence other industries and future generations, and that really excites me.

Moroccan Soup Bar, 316 St Georges Rd, Fitzroy North

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