Photo credit: @tiikermies

When starting a conversation with Holly Connolly and Minaë Tani, you can be sure of a few things: we will discuss food, we will discuss immigrants, and we will discuss how these two can be more than the sum of their parts.

When Holly and Minaë founded Zestii, it was first for themselves. Now, it’s a platform for cooks stranded in a strange land with dark winters, bureaucracy, and apparently, a constant craving for ethnic food. 

Just to start things off, tell me a little bit about yourself.

Minaë: Well, I came to Finland with no particular plan for myself, just following my spouse, and the original plan was to stay here for two years. I was not doing much, I was just taking a vacation from a busy life that I had in Tokyo. And then we figured out we would stay more than two years, and I would have to find something of my own. So, I followed my interests and passion, observing peoples’ interest in the Japanese culture I’m from, and I started to realise that there is a lack of supply compared to the demand that exists. So I started to have my own workshops about Japanese food culture, cooking workshops, sushi making, miso making, fermentation workshop. Now I’m doing a sake tasting workshop also and realise how powerful food is as a tool to connect with people. And then I met Holly…

Holly: I think it’s really difficult for anybody who’s been through this, like a re-education process, like finding your place. My place has always been through food and cooking, it’s something I have always loved, always had a passion for. So, what I did when I first came here was set up a company that kind of continued a small business that I’d set up in the UK after I had kids. I set up this small cake baking business and did small simple catering, and that was wonderful, you know? It was a way for me to meet people, to earn a little. I think it was really interesting for me at that early stage, I was talking to a lot to people and cooks, and there were more immigrant and international cooks. And, you know, I started to recognise there were so many people out there like me, in my position, and so much cooking talent as well. And they didn’t really have the opportunity or the confidence to know what to do with it. It’s very difficult in another country, when you don’t necessarily understand the rules, the regulations. What you’ve got to go through is super intimidating. I recognised that there was something more that could be done and I was incredibly fortunate to meet Minaë. 

Minaë: We had a wonderful food conversation, and we kind of also realised we were both in the same place, that all the family members have settled-in in the new country, but we were a little bit left out. So, we discussed what we could do together. Then the opportunity rose – in Finland, there are so many entrepreneurship courses available. I started to think of doing something, not being employed by someone but doing something of my own. And I invited Holly to join a business programme together to turn this simple idea into something that could be called a business, and then we started to talk about sustainability in the food system, and much bigger issues that the food itself can contain or be related to.

Holly: We came to this realisation that we could do so much more to help the people around us, and to recognize the issues that they had. Create more opportunities. We understood that together we are always stronger as a team – if we’re working together, we can make bigger, wonderful things happen. 

So basically, what you’re saying is that you didn’t only start the business, you started the community.

Holly: Well, that’s what we are. We’re aiming towards creating this community feeling where we feel that our strength comes, where people have an opportunity to talk to each other, to exchange ideas, to learn from each other, so the business that we set up is very much a hybrid thing. I talk about a platform. But for us, the digital side and the tech is only half the story, the success for us lies in the fact that there is a physical way for our community members to come together and talk to each other and work together so often. The events that we are asked to cater are bigger events, you know, from fifty to a hundred people, and a solo entrepreneur can’t do that on their own. But together, as a group of people, they can, and that brings people with similar skills together. 

Minaë: There’s also the larger community concerning sustainability around food in general. I am onboard this global movement with slow food, which is the movement against globalisation and homogenization of food and food culture. So, my passion is to source ingredients from local producers, learn seasonality of the place where we live and adapt our cooking to the local ingredients, so it becomes a beautiful fusion of our food culture, and the food products that we provide reflects the combination of this diverse culture and the locality. 

You take sustainability in your business very seriously, and it is a vast and complex entity in food – from ingredients to packaging, to delivery and waste, even the type of energy used in your kitchens. How do you take all these things into consideration?

Holly: I think this is an absolutely key question, and sustainability as a whole is something that is really important to us, and the way we want to structure our business and the decision making as we move forward in the food industry. It’s so important and really difficult, with the way our economic system is set up at the moment. Right now, we are really interested in packaging, so making sure that our packaging is predominantly reusable has had us partner with a Helsinki-based start-up who are doing amazing things at the moment and are very much into circular economy of packaging. 

And food waste is obviously really important to us, and cutting down on that – we’ve structured our events through a pre-order system, but it really is down to experience of how much food a certain size event consumes. With smaller events, the cooks can take the leftover food to their own domestic environment to be consumed, but obviously, that’s not ideal from a business perspective. You know, we’re not going to solve all the problems in the food industry, it’s just impossible. But we can start to make some changes and we can start to talk about what we’re doing and educate the people around us, not only customers, but our suppliers and the cooks we work with on our platform. That’s our responsibility and that’s our duty.

Minaë: When starting this and going through all these processes, we started to talk about sustainability in the food system, much bigger issues that the food itself can contain or be related to. So not just food services or businesses. We have been testing ideas here and there at different times – it’s slow progress because we have so much to do and we are not necessarily the industry experts in any of those things that the questions require, but we have had a strong shared experience from the beginning of what obstacles there are for us to be an expert here and start doing something. Yeah, we’re still testing, but I think we have come quite far from where we started. 

The size of the task is immense, though. How hopeful are you, regarding the global picture and the climate crisis?

Holly: It depends. It depends on who I’ve been speaking to and what the weather is like outside. But I am hopeful, and there are just incredible innovations happening. There are really smart people out there, some interesting companies doing fantastic things. Genuinely. There’s a lot of energy and a lot of great stuff happening, but we’re still pushing, pushing, pushing. I don’t want to be the harbinger of doom. I’ve worked with lots of climate scientists and just 10-12 years ago, they were just with fear in their eyes, you know? It’s very easy to fixate on that fear and to think that OK, there’s nothing we can do and it’s just going to be a terrible future for us. But I think that is a very damaging way to approach the situation. What we all can and should do is accept our responsibility and acknowledge our ability to make small changes. You know, small changes in business, small changes in individual operations, on a domestic level. 

I think the attitude that in the end, you just have to make the changes, they have to happen, so let’s just come together and do it. And there is no point in just accepting the alternative. That’s not going to help us right now to make the changes, so what’s the point in that? You have to be positive and you just have to keep bloody trying, you know, just keep doing stuff even when it does get hard. Even when you do remember the fear in the scientists’ eyes. Because the more people that have that positive “can-do” attitude, the more people will join, and the more realistic it becomes.

Holly and Minaë were chatting with Pasi Pirttiaho

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