Incubating immigrant talent in Hamburg’s kitchens with Refugee Canteen founder Benjamin Jürgens - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Incubating immigrant talent in Hamburg’s kitchens with Refugee Canteen founder Benjamin Jürgens


Refugee Canteen strive to facilitate immigrants’ entry into culinary sectors. To founder and Hamburg native Benjamin Jürgens, this entails seeing integration as an asset.

Benjamin Jürgens has just bounced away from a ten-minute conversation during which he mistakenly confused a recruitment consultant with our photographer. Not an unusual scenario in a coworking space. For six months, Jürgens and his team have operated from the Hamburg branch of WeWork. “If you want to rent a traditional office space, the landlord will definitely ask: ‘How old is your company? That’ll be 10,000 Euro, please.’ At WeWork, we had the keys in no time,” says Jürgens.

This portrait was created to coincide with The Sooner Now Hamburg. In the port city talks and panels revolved around migration and the notion of home and belonging.

At least for now, Jürgens lacks financial collateral or a long-standing history—although he has been in the business for 14 years. His three-year-old company, Gastrolotsen, consult and support young restaurateurs and, with the academy Refugee Canteen, support refugees on their epicurean entry.

Those who attend Refugee Canteen acquire a “gastro-driver’s license”. They attend a three-week waiting and cooks training followed by a four-week company placement. The goal: to obtain an apprenticeship. To date, the program has placed 55 immigrants. Half of them were successful, landing jobs with various restaurants, including the hotel chain 25hours. Gastrolotsen continue to mentor the trainees for another year. They expect about 60 new participants this year. “Even if only one graduates, I’ll leave work with a huge smile on my face,” says Jürgens.

Benjamin Jürgens at his local greengrocer Helal Pazar in Hamburg’s Sternschanze

Jürgens grew up in Mümmelmannsberg, a large ’70s housing estate in Hamburg’s Billstedt district. Nearly one in every four local residents has immigrated from another country; the percentage of unemployment and welfare rates exceed average numbers. “I grew up surrounded by refugees; I had no German neighbors. We were the Germans,” Jürgens recalls. “My youth included all things imaginable: pickpocketing and fabricating childish nonsense, we even had a little gang. Back then, food was already a bridge: That’s how I got to know other cultures. I ate with my hands on my neighbor’s floor as they didn’t have any tables. Being German was what felt foreign.”

“Some are born into positive environments; I was always surrounded by trouble. However, I strive to translate that into something positive.”

After high school, Benjamin attended a technical college. When he fell for a girl from Eppendorf, an upscale Hamburg neighborhood, his mother felt deeply betrayed—and kicked him out. Some time into his first employment, he was called into the restaurant Bereuther—the place to be for Hamburg’s society at the time—to delete a virus from the owner’s computer. “When I finished, the chef asked me to stay for dinner. That’s the norm in hospitality establishments; you sit and eat together,” says Jürgens. “My entire life I had to be careful not to mention my Mümmelmannsberg origin. That night it didn’t bother anyone where I come from,” he explains. “I quit my technician job the next day to start afresh in the hospitality industry. All of a sudden it became my home. The term family acquired a whole new meaning.”

Photography: Bernd Jonkmanns

Jürgens started at the bottom: From plongeur to barman, to operations manager and eventually deputy managing director. “Once I’ve had a taste of something, I can’t stop, which has to do with my upbringing,” he says. “People say that those who come from Mümmelmannsberg have given up on life. I will not give up.”

In 2006, he followed his then-girlfriend on a trip to Malawi, East Africa. “Following a visit to the orphanage she worked at, I withdrew all my savings and donated them to the organization,” he says. The desire to give back continues to drive Benjamin today. “Some are born into positive environments; I was always surrounded by trouble. However, I strive to translate that into something positive.”

Benjamin Jürgens with Hassan and Aron, two participants of the Refugee Canteen.

Jürgens soon committed his time to various social projects in Germany. His first company, Lovani, consulted businesses on matters of social engagement; Jürgens’ catering company Cooking & Friends soon followed suit. In 2014, he spent a gap year in Australia. “I was unaware of the refugee crisis happening in Germany while in Australia. The evening of my return I met up with three befriended cooks at Hamburg’s convention center. A lot of immigrants had found shelter there. I told the others that we had to do something.” Around that time the KfW-Stiftung announced its foundation that supports projects involving refugees. “The penny finally dropped: There’s a lack of skilled workers in hospitality. Why don’t we show them how our industry operates?” That same evening, he wrote the business plan. Soon after funding was approved.

Today, the Refugee Canteen is funded by various foundations, including the Hamburg city council that has supported the initiative since the beginning. Stereotypes and challenges are natural. “Your company is changing as soon as you employ four Afghans,” Jürgens states. “You need to understand what these people have been through. We can’t imagine going to an immigration office in the morning and facing the idea of being deported.”

“Integration is a process, and if we were more open minded we would learn a lot from it.”

Inside Jürgens’ kitchen, this cultural understanding is exercised on a small scale. “Naturally, each person treats products differently. But to the question of whether the heritage of my co-workers plays a role, I would always say no—that’s a no-brainer. If a caveman encountered another one when hiding from a mammoth, they wouldn’t have asked each where they’re from.”

To Jürgens, education is key to integrate immigrants effectively. Locals’, however, need a better understanding. “I get daily calls from people suggesting ‘a nice Afghan’ I should work with. My immediate answer to that is, ‘Cool, can you smoke him?’. I consider that racism. Why would he not be nice? You wouldn’t introduce a photographer as a nice one. That needs to stop. Integration is a process, and if we were more open minded we would learn a lot from it.”

Benjamin Jürgens at lunch with Aron.

His troubled past has probably led him to have a better understanding of home and origin. Home, what does that even mean? “To me, it’s strongly connected to feeling calm and having control over your life,” Jürgens says. Whenever Jürgens longs for tranquility, there’s one place in his hometown that associates with home and belonging like no other: Hamburg’s port. “Thanks to my many travels, my perception on things has changed. I perceive the notion of home differently; it’s much more apparent. Hamburg is home to me.”

Refugee Canteen founder Benjamin Jürgens was one of four panelists at Hamburg’s The Sooner Now event. Taking place at the local 25hours hotel, the talks revolved around the meaning of home and belonging.

Learn more about the joint initiative by MINI and FvF that addresses urban challenges and a better life in the city here. This year, the long-standing collaboration is supported by urban design magazine IDEAT.

Text: Nadine Wenzlick for FvF Productions
Photography: Uta Gleiser for FvF Productions