Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in our Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria) Pat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits) and Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) to help us identify the people changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In food, Hana Assafiri OAM was chosen for her work with Moroccan Soup Bar and beyond.
Hana Assafiri OAM counts herself lucky that the Melbourne community embraced Moroccan Soup Bar the way it did – after all, it was risky opening a restaurant with such an unconventional concept back in 1998.
Contrary to what the name suggests, this is not a bar, nor is soup the main event. But it certainly is Moroccan. The menu is communicated verbally and has been the same for many years, earning dishes like the chickpea bake and dips a legendary status. For a small venue that has no menu, no booze and no meat, competition for diner real estate is astoundingly fierce.
“When the peculiar was peculiar, people got behind it because it spoke to them in a way that the gentrification of the industry didn’t. In my experience, when people are kind of stubborn and daring enough to be quirky, most of the community really tends to rally behind that and go, ‘yep, that’s for me. I like what’s being said, it resonates.’”
Since Moroccan Soup Bar opened in North Fitzroy in 1998, Assafiri has been serving up flavour-packed meals to the masses while also providing employment opportunities for marginalised people. But a restaurant was only ever one part of Assafiri’s vision. Through events like Speed Date a Muslim and Conversation Salons, Assafiri has encouraged meaningful and respectful conversations between people of all backgrounds.
She also stepped up to help out others during Melbourne’s first lockdown in 2020. Moroccan Soup Bar raised more than $11,000 and used that money to cook 880 free meals for healthcare workers at St Vincent's and Royal Melbourne Hospital.
Then, a couple of months later, unsuccessful rent negotiations forced the Moroccan Soup Bar team to pack up their small venue move to a new location up the road. “In this crisis, whilst we have been luckily the recipient of both the best of human attributes and a generous community and also, sadly, some of the worst in greedy landlords,” says Assafiri.
“We wouldn’t let that define us. We thought to use the fact that we have to move premises as an opportunity to reinvent hospitality in this new and quirky way, by engaging our communities in and with the issues, however unconventional, that I think are about humanity, not politics."
Currently, when you visit Moroccan Soup Bar at 316 St Georges Road, there are six rooms to dine in. Each room is themed around a different concept like food and nutrition, First Nations stories, privilege and the climate emergency. In each room, there are quizzes and conversation starters around those themes. “We invite people, instead of attacking them and accusing them of bad behaviour. Our approach is very much been about building bridges across the divide, always has been.”
You can tell Assafiri is a passionate advocate for this city – and she does think that Melbourne’s strong sense of community has helped her along. “I often refer to Melbourne, in part, as the social conscience of the country,” says Assafiri. “We are more communal than we are individual. Yeah, we get frustrated, for example, with lockdowns, but we do it anyway. Very little, if any, protest, even though we’re frustrated and devastated. And it is because we understand and care about the bigger picture and the greater good and the more communal nature of society rather than just our own personal gains."
Back in 2015, Time Out awarded Hana Assafiri with a Legend Award during our annual Food Awards event. She was celebrated for her innovation and her entrepreneurship – something that hasn’t wavered or changed in the six years since.
“I hope that I become, you know, obsolete one day that issues of social justice no longer matter. Because the world is just unfair. But until then, until it’s my last dying breath, we’ll continue to innovate and create around those themes. It’s more important now than ever, I think.”
And her advice for people thinking of following in her footsteps? “Don’t measure yourself by what’s happening externally. Come back to your own values and convictions and reinvest in those, especially when they are unconventional.”
“In Melbourne in particular, people tend to rally behind those whose convictions are for the betterment of us all. Even when we fumble our way through, I think people are hungry. And there’s a massive appetite for doing things in a more socially responsible, just and compassionate way.”