Cooking Up New Families


By David Szanto, Ph.D.

For recent immigrants, and particularly those with refugee experience, leaving their country of origin involves many different kinds of loss. Sometimes, there is a loss of family connections, often a loss of culture, and always the loss of a sense of belonging. Food plays a key part in all of this—not being able to find, make, and eat customary foods can start to erode the way you recognize yourself. At the same time, however, food is also a solution.

One organization that is using food to smooth the experience of new arrivals to Québec is Supper Society, a non-profit founded in 2017 by Turkish-born Basak Büyükçelen. The concept is simple: every month, in an informal setting, established locals get together with newcomers over a meal. The locals make the food; everyone eats. In the everyday normalcy of a shared meal, connections are made, and what had previously seemed foreign starts to become familiar.

For Büyükçelen, Supper Society helps fill a gap that she herself felt upon arriving in Montreal a decade ago. Despite learning French, finding work, and building a community around herself, the former filmmaker felt that she had lost a large part of her identity. Over time, she was able to recreate her sense of self, but it was a slow and difficult process. “I worked long and hard to become a person I recognized again,” she says. “That shouldn’t have to happen for everyone who immigrates to Québec. What I’m trying to do with Supper Society is make it faster and easier, at least for some of them.”

It is said that when we dine together, we become more alike. Sharing food is a way of sharing values, exchanging parts of ourselves, and incorporating the sensibilities of others. We are what we eat, in so many ways.

Over time, Büyükçelen’s plan is to enable local hosts throughout the city and province—as well as across Canada—to hold their own connection-making meals. If one host can help a dozen newcomers, an expanded network can start to have a significant impact.

“When I first came up with the idea for Supper Society,” she says, “I didn’t realize that there were so many other organizations helping immigrants through food, housing, jobs. Now I know that there are many of us, each making our own contribution. It’s another reason I am grateful for this experience—by helping people build community ties, I feel much more connected myself.”

Indeed, several other food-focused programs have been launched over the past years, responding to the many different needs of new arrivals. Some focus on skills development for eventual employment, others are more socially oriented. In either case, the effect is greater integration and belonging.

The family dinner table is where traditions are formed and reproduced, one meal at a time. The Supper Society gatherings do the same. Past participants often bring more recent newcomers along, extending the organization’s reach. In this way, home is re-established, traditions are re-made, and the Montreal ‘family’ grows more diverse, more resilient, and much more delicious.

More information is available at

David SzantoDavid Szanto is a Montreal-based food researcher, consultant, and long-time contributor to this magazine. In 2015, he earned a PhD in gastronomy from Concordia University, the first of its kind.


Fall 2019, Vol 11 N°4

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