Cozinha Popolar: The Kitchen That Builds Community by Cooking
The battered brown door on a cobbled street in Lisbon’s maze-like Mouraria district gives nothing away, as we search Rua das Olarias for its much-loved Cozinha Popolar.
But thankfully, on our third-or-so pass, the door is opened by a lady and her labrador to reveal the long communal tables, mismatched chairs and open kitchen that form 'The People’s Kitchen’, one of Lisbon's most beloved socio-environmental projects.
Cozinha Popolar da Mouraria is a social enterprise founded by photographer Adriana Freire - the lady in question, with the labrador - who set up the civic-minded project to support and empower a neighbourhood that needed a little love and light.
The Mouraria district is the most historic and multi-ethnic area of Lisbon, formed from the waves of Moorish immigrants unable to set up home within the original city walls of the Castelo de São Jorge, instead spreading out over the hill below. These humble beginnings carried through the years, so that Mouraria remains a place of relative poverty, but also enormous diversity and tradition - Portugal's infamous Fado music originated here. But the richness of culture and character was being stifled by lack of mobility, lack of integration, and rising crime.
Adriana saw cooking as the 'universal language' which would connect all the different nations and backgrounds, and used it to create a community hub to pull together all their skills and resources in the spirit of entrepreneurship. In training and working together to grow, harvest, prepare and cook food for the neighbourhood, as well as the many groups of people who book to dine, the young, poor, unemployed, isolated, elderly, rehabilitated - anyone experiencing a degree of marginalisation - were given the opportunity to be part of a community caring for each other and the environment.
The modesty of the low-key entrance is just the first evidence of the simple and wholesome vibes that permeate the disused upholstery workshop it inhabits, decorated with eclectic furniture and objects donated by the locals who have gladly contributed a piece of themselves and made it their extended family home.
Always fresh and seasonal, meals are prepared in bulk for group bookings, to limit food waste, and are served as a five course buffet. The menu often takes on the flavours of the chef of the night (as you can see from the sketch above, Eritrea was the featured nationality the night we attended). The principle is that if you can pay, you pay, to ensure those who might be in need will be fed, and so wealth is distributed more evenly.
Cookery classes, chef pop-ups, connections with local schools and urban farming are all part of the make up of activities that give a central focus to the disparate community and form the endless energy and reach of the project - free to residents, fees to the rest, to make the project self-sustaining.
Our visit, the atmosphere and the food was fantastic, and we are endlessly inspired by the work of Adriana Freire, a powerhouse in uniting people for positive change through the medium of food. Privileged to have had the chance to experience it first-hand - a good thing for us that she stepped out of that battered brown door when she did.
All images © Caroline Santos. Please request permission to reproduce.