By- Josh Barrie
Ali Mustafaj fled Albania just before his 16th birthday, and arrived in Bristol three weeks later
Ali’s first proper meal, after a three-week escape through Europe, was a large slice of supermarket quiche. It was cheese and onion, gently warmed, and served with a simple salad. Fresh food had not been on the menu for the teenager, who had survived on leftover sausages and stale bread in the Calais Jungle, and who arrived in the UK in the back of a lorry without a penny to his name.
Ali, full name Ali Mustafaj, began his journey in the northern clutches of Albania. He was nearing his 16th birthday and needed to get out. After a relative gave him a few hundred Euros, he bargained his way to Italy, before travelling south towards France and onto England. The migrant, who then spoke only broken English, was disorientated and alone when he got to Bristol. Why Bristol, he’ll never know. He went to sleep in a park. Today, Ali is 19 and head chef of a popular Italian restaurant. I meet him for lunch. We have linguine salmone, his favourite dish on the menu. It is creamy and salty and delicious.
An accent that blends northern Albanian with West Country Bristol
“A friend helped me leave [Albania]”, Ali tells me, in an accent that carefully blends Albania with Bristol. “The Calais Jungle was a place I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I was attacked. It wasn’t nice. But I managed to get here. “I didn’t have a clue when I got to Bristol. I didn’t know where I was. When I woke up, I found help.” Help came by way of social services, who sent Ali to live with John Stokes, a local and trusted foster carer who’s given Ali lots of quiche, a bizarre new accent, and a future.
Mr Stokes has always specialised in troubled young men – often car thieves, oddly. Ali was his first migrant. Mr Stokes tells me: “I saw something in Ali – a drive and a passion. He was different. He had an edge.” Ali soon found himself entranced by Britain’s endless reel of cooking shows – Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver provided early inspiration – and enrolled at catering college. He flourished, won awards, and was dubbed a future “star”. “He excelled,” Mr Stokes explains. “He was desperate to learn. And he did.
In the early days, he’d come home, open the fridge, and say, ‘What’s for dinner then, John’. Within weeks it was like living in a restaurant. He has a talent.”
Cooking at the Elephant
Mr Stokes’ household meals – invariably quiche, as by the carer’s own admittance, his cooking “barely registers” – soon took an upward turn. Ali studied, continued to improve, and soon, at 17, landed a temporary role at the Michelin-starred Elephant in Torquay, Devon, under the guidance of chef Simon Hulstone. “I went for work experience,” says Ali. “I was excited and learned a lot. It was sometimes hard being away from Bristol, as it was becoming home, and I had spent a lot of time moving around, but it helped me develop and showed me what I could achieve.” All this was drastically put on hold when, six months from 18, Ali faced the prospect of being sent back to Albania.
Ali would no longer be a child, his application to remain in the UK was denied, and he had just eight weeks to appeal. With legal aid cut, Mr Stokes began fundraising in order to go to court and apply to stay. “It was devastating,” Mr Stokes tells i. “The impact on Ali was massive. I didn’t realise the full scale of what he had been through, but the situation shone a light on it all. “It’s haunting to think of how damaging all of this was. You’ve started a new future and then it suddenly looks like it’s going to be taken away. “Ali is like a son to me. I can’t adopt him, but I don’t need to. It was traumatic.”
Won the right to remain
Ali adds: “I was very fearful when it was refused. I wouldn’t go back. A lot of people run away. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same.” Thanks to media attention and subsequent generosity, Ali and Mr Stokes raised the money and won their appeal. Mr Stokes says the close bond he and Ali had struck and the security he afforded the teenager, as well as Ali’s promise as a chef, were “instrumental to their success”. The court decision paid off: within six months, Ali was head chef of the Italian restaurant I find myself in. “I just love food,” Ali tells me. “I feel settled now. I feel always happy.
Bristol feels like home.” He has ambitions beyond the restaurant’s walls: “I would love one day to have a restaurant of my own. But I know I need to learn more, to work in different kitchens. I have a way to go but right now, it is good. It’s important to earn respect. “One day, if I have my own place, maybe I’ll bring Albanian food here. “If I had one meal left to eat in my life, it would be my mother’s Tave Krapi of Shkodra – carp from the oven.”