The kitchen without borders: How refugees are finding a new home through cooking


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t all started with hummus. When Manal Kahi moved from Lebanon to New York to start a degree at Columbia, she loved exploring the myriad cuisines on offer in the sprawling metropolis, but couldn’t find a decent pot of the classic chickpea and garlic dip for love nor money.

After she started whipping up batches of hummus using a recipe handed down by her Syrian grandmother – batches that were eagerly devoured by friends – Kahi thought she might have spotted a gap in the market.

This was in 2013, says Kahi, in “the midst of the refugee crisis back home in Lebanon, [which] was starting to reach the shores of Europe. So when we started thinking of who could bring better hummus to New York, it kind of made sense to think of Syrian refugees being resettled here.”

Kahi teamed up with her older brother Wissam, who had moved to the US previously, and the siblings started hatching a plan.

“We thought, ‘Why not make it more global?’ Have recipes from all over the world, have refugees from all over the world bring recipes that are just like hummus – so much better when they’re made with love, made from family recipes versus mass production.”

That’s how Eat Offbeat was born. The catering company was founded in 2015 with an initial investment of $25,000 (around £17,700), secured after entering a competition run by Columbia Business School.

Via a partnership with the International Rescue Committee, the firm hires refugees who have been resettled in New York, mostly amateur chefs (some had restaurants in their home countries), and is currently staffed by a team hailing from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Syria and Venezuela.

Kahi is keen to point out that they don’t focus on why their chefs were forced to flee their home countries and seek refuge in America: “When someone wants to chat about the past then obviously we’re all ears, but we don’t really go into detail on the traumatic events of why you left or how you left; it’s really secondary.

“Part of our goal, ultimately, is about changing the narrative around refugees by showcasing a different story, a more positive story, where refugees are the chefs, they are the heroes.”

Brother and sister Wissam and Manal Kahi are the co-founders of Eat Offbeat

(PA)

They’ve now launched their first cookbook, which brings together recipes from Eat Offbeat chefs past and present (including granny’s much-loved hummus), and dedicates a page to each chef, talking about their food memories from home and how they found their way into the Eat Offbeat kitchen.

“I really hope it does bring across our point of highlighting the chefs for all the value they’re adding to the New York economy, rather than, you know, portraying refugees as people who are relying on charity,” Kahi says. “That’s not necessarily the case. Most of them are entrepreneurs. They’re starting businesses, they’re creating value.”

What are some of Kahi’s favourite recipes from the book?

“Chef Rachana from Nepal was one of our very first chefs – now she’s moved on, she has her own catering company. She makes an incredible Manchurian cauliflower dish. It’s deep-fried and crunchy.

“Another one is chef Shanthi, she’s from Sri Lanka and makes an incredible eggplant curry, called Katarica Curry. It’s fried eggplant and that’s one of my favourite things.”

Previously, companies in New York could order a menu of these and other dishes to cater events, but when the pandemic hit, Eat Offbeat was forced to rapidly rethink its business model.

“Back in March 2020, [because of] Covid, we lost practically 100% of our revenue within a week – we had a week to reinvent our business,” Kahi explains.

“So what we did is, we took our bestsellers from catering, we put them in a box and we started delivering those boxes directly to our customers at home, instead of delivering to their office.”

Closing the kitchen was not an option for this team of determined chefs, she says: “I remember at the time, our chefs were [saying], ‘If we’re not here to cook for New York, how are people going to eat?’

“They kind of felt that they had a mission. We like to say we felt like we needed to return the favour to New York for hosting us – with flavour.”

It’s been a turbulent time, but Kahi is feeling optimistic about the future, particularly after the arrival of President Biden.

“[President Trump] had even stopped the programme of welcoming refugees – now we’re back on track with the new administration,” says Kahi. “It’s definitely a hopeful climate.”

‘The Kitchen Without Borders: Recipes and Stories From Refugee and Immigrant Chefs’ by The Eat Offbeat Chefs, with photography by Penny De Los Santos, is published by Workman, priced £18.99

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