The Azerbaijani culinary businesswoman succeeding in Europe
Vafa Jafarova is well known by younger Azerbaijanis for her entrepreneurial spirit and active participation in public life. For six years, she and her family lived in the Netherlands, where she started a culinary blog and began working in the food sector; she achieved success in a very short time. Vafa receives and fills orders for various homemade foods and sweets. She shares her original recipes on her blog so that people can prepare them at home.
The food business is complex, and requires precision and attention to detail.
The question: how did an Azerbaijani chef succeed in Europe, where business practices and expectations on quality differ from those in Azerbaijan? Jafarova agreed to an interview with us on the subject.
Vafa, there are many stereotypes about our expats, but perhaps the most prevalent is that even the educated are forced to become lowly - paid manual laborers in Europe. How true do you think that stereotype is? Have you, your husband or friends ever had such problems finding a job suitable to your qualifications?
I don't know much about others, because I don’t have many other Azerbaijani friends here, but it is true that you have to start everything from scratch. Starting is always difficult because no one knows you here and you feel lost in space. But it's also an opportunity to test your skills and abilities. The self-confidence you can gain from succeeding outside of your comfort zone is incomparable.
When I was new here and just arrived, I gave much thought about which way to go. Nobody is going to strike up the band and roll out the red carpet for you when you arrive at the airport, but you will have serious opportunities and choices to make here. I got the chance to finish my education and was offered a scholarship. Education is a really important issue in our society, but I have two kids; it's not realistic for me to become a student again. If I see a good opportunity, I take it; if it's not, I want nothing to do with it. In the end, I chose this job I'm doing now. I work at home and love my job, and I can also give the children the attention they need.
As I understand, you've been a chef for a while. I know you adore your job. Would you call it a small business?
I'm at the first critical steps. I don't know if you could call it a business, but I have my regular clients; the network is gradually growing.
Are there specific steps to follow? For example, do you need to take any culinary courses, a license to sell or prepare food, certificates, taxes and so on?
There are rules in this business like any other. Hygiene is essential. The products have to be kept at the right temperature, the packaging must be a certain way, even washing dishes is important. As far as the admin side of the job, my husband Azer takes care of. He's studying small and medium business management. That means my small business is in good hands. I'm responsible for the creative work.
Is the income from this job enough for your family to live on?
We just started, but we want to expand the menu and make our name known. We will send you an official letter when we earn our first million!
Do you plan to expand your business and if so, do you have a growth strategy?
Growth is the goal. To be honest, it's an interesting market. As you know, I don't care which country stuffed grape leaves and chicken and rice soup come from. These days, the culinary arts are hardly considered a source of pride anymore. My clients mostly like baklava and almond puff pastries. I've heard a lot of ridiculous things about the almond puff pastries. People even place a lot of mystical interpretations on their shape. Some say the shape looks like Saruman’s ‘all-seeing eye.’ Others say it's a third eye. I get those kinds of interesting comments. That gave me the idea that people like food with a story. If something has a tale behind it, it becomes a trend. Almost anyone can cook foods and desserts, but you need skill to make what you cook popular. Because of this, I have to make our cuisine trendy. I have a lot of plans. I hope I have enough strength to make them happen.
Once you wrote that a compatriot saw you taking an order and made fun of you. Why do you think people look down on your honest enthusiasm?
That incident affected me deeply. Sometimes I forget our people's love of superficial things. The root of their complex stems from their ignorance. This is something sociologists need to investigate, but this complex separates us even outside of the country. If five Azerbaijanis are together, they will gossip about the sixth. There are a lot of foreign people here; Turks, Moroccans, Afghans, Iranians and so on. I watch these people a lot. All of them know what being an expat is like. They support each other in their culture. Ours are after materialistic things; they want to show their things are more expensive than someone else's. Azerbaijani expats want to believe that European women are tasteless, ugly, can't take care of the home and lacking morality. They want to take pride in how religious their children are. Sure there are some exceptions, but speaking generally, it's really bad.
Do you miss being an activist?
I guess I've already answered this. It's a little déjà vu. I cherish my regrets and the things I miss. It's a little cliché, but it would be a waste of time for a 32-year-old with two kids to wallow in the past. I have no social life, but sometimes I miss my relatives who I could have a cup of tea and a chat with. Here I know some local people and friends, but our personalities are different. Our childhood, joys and heartaches are all different. Sometimes it takes me an hour to explain something, and it's still not clear.
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