Two years ago, Ali escaped what had been a traumatic and dangerous upbringing in Albania, where he was often locked in a hut by family members, and unable to attend school. With the help of a friend, he got out, made it to the Calais Jungle, then hitched a ride on a lorry. Speaking only broken English, Ali ended up in Bristol, and found refuge at the home of foster carer John Stokes. Within a month, he had enrolled at catering college.
Today, at 18 years old, Ali is one of the country's most promising young chefs. He has just completed his second year on a food technology course at the City of Bristol College’s Skills Academy, and came third in this year's misleadingly named Young Peruvian Chef of the Year competition in London, despite being the most inexperienced chef to make the final. He is now being mentored by Simon Hulstone, chef-patron of Michelin-starred The Elephant in Torquay, Devon (currently running a pop-up at the John Lewis Gardening Society in London.)
Ali could be soon sent back to Albania.
Hulstone tells me: "Ali has worked with me for over a year, with the threat of deportation hanging over his head throughout. He is a keen and talented young man who has found a passion for cooking. For all this to be taken away from him is an injustice, and we hope to fight our way to keeping him here — safe, employed, enjoying life and paying his taxes.” He describes Ali as "polite" and "always on time", and says he has "the ability to be an amazing young chef".
“I see a lot of myself as a young chef in Ali — someone who is keen to progress, but also trying to hold onto their youth. The difference is Ali's youth only started last year."
Upon arriving in Britain, Ali applied for asylum as an unaccompanied minor, but was turned down. The Home Office's policy on Albanian nationals is confusing, at best. Ali’s latest application, which he made in November 2016, was rejected two weeks ago. His temporary visa has long since run out. Unable to qualify for legal aid, Ali must now find £5,000 for an upcoming court appearance, which might give him a chance to find sanctuary in the UK, and to build what, it is reasonable to assume, would be a successful career in restaurants.
John Stokes, who takes in children as a temporary foster carer at his home in South Bristol, believes Ali’s story is a clear example of how Britain benefits from diversity. He tells Eater London: “After over 25 years of fostering troubled teenagers, I thought I'd seen it all. Then a skinny and timid Ali arrived. When I put the first meal on the table (his first experience of a supermarket quiche), he quickly realised that, if he was to stay around, he had better learn to cook.
“In his 16 years, Ali had only known neglect, abuse and constant fear. These new feelings of belonging, safety and security — those things most of us take for granted — were as foreign as the quiche to him.
“Ali has made a new life. He has excelled and will be a star. This young man has a real and absolute passion for food. When he arrived, he watched Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay videos all night. He talked endlessly about herbs and flavours and, for the first time in his life, he discovered international cuisine. Watching a boy experience and develop new skills has been a true delight and joy.”
Stokes has been unable to adopt Ali: “I told him that, for the rest of my life, he would be my son, maybe not on paper, but in my heart.”
Together with Hulstone, who has put in some of his own money, and others in the Bristol and food communities, Stokes is appealing the Home Office rejection of asylum. A fundraising page has been set up for Ali, alongside a #Fight4Ali campaign on social media.