At a humble commercial kitchen in Queens, women from Syria, Iraq, Guinea-Conakry, Nepal and Eritrea are working together to cook up delicacies from their homelands and send them out, hot and steaming, across the hungry city. Under the tutelage of Juan Suarez de Lezo, a veteran of numerous Michelin-starred restaurants, they are utilizing home cooking knowledge passed down from generations to feed hundreds of people a day. They’re serving up culinary delights you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in America, even in New York. And another thing they each have in common: They’re refugees.
The catering service, Eat Offbeat, is the brainchild of Manal Kahi, herself a transplant from Beirut. Kahi says that when she first arrived stateside in 2013 she noticed the hummus just wasn’t as tasty as in Lebanon. That sent her on a mission to master her grandmother’s recipe and left her wondering what other flavors New Yorkers were missing out on. Four years later, Eat Offbeat headquarters is a bustling rebuke to the politics of xenophobia, jingoism and divisiveness that have gripped the nation — even if Kahi prefers to avoid politics and let the food do the talking.
Kahi was kind enough, however, to speak with The Indypendent this month about offering New Yorkers culinary refuge, Iraqi momos and the international language of food. Eat Offbeat is raising funds for a cookbook on Kickstarter.
Peter Rugh: What was it like coming from Beirut and encountering the food here in New York? I take it you weren’t very impressed by the quality of the hummus?
Manal Kali: I love the food here. I mean, the hummus per se was not great in the grocery stores. Clearly there are some restaurants that make great hummus, but the one you buy in grocery stores wasn’t the same as the one I would get back home. The one I made back home was so much better.
As for food you can get in the city, it’s so diverse, but in terms of ethnic restaurants you sometimes have to go really deep into Queens or somewhere like that to find places that are really authentic. And even in a city as cosmopolitan as New York, you still don’t find cuisines from places like Eritrea, Nepal, Syria or Iraq. You might find one restaurant somewhere, but it’s not that common.
That’s why we thought this idea was good. We serve cuisines that are hard to find and we thought it would be good to highlight them, while at the same time creating jobs and opportunities for talented refugees.
Is there a philosophy behind Offbeat?
We have a few goals. The first is to provide quality jobs to talented home cooks who happen to be refugees by status, but are by nature great chefs. The second goal is to build bridges between those who are cooking in the kitchen and New Yorkers who are eating our food, making an easier way for them to connect through something as great as food. And the ultimate goal is to change the narrative and show a different story about refugees. They are the chefs. They are the heroes. So it’s switching perspectives a bit.
We’re where adventurous eaters can find refuge. It’s really about highlighting the fact that, in this case, refugees are helping us. They don’t need our help. They are the ones helping New Yorkers try new flavors.
Have there been any discussions in the kitchen about Trump’s Muslim travel ban? Are folks worried about the political climate here?
What we’re doing is focusing on the food. That’s what we do. By the number of orders we’ve received people are very clearly showing their support for us. And we feel that it is more urgent than ever, we’re more determined than ever, to keep doing what we’re doing.
It seems like this effort is, by example, counteracting the idea that because people are different they can’t live side-by-side. At Offbeat there are people from different parts of the world all working together.
Oh, for sure, and everyone loves it. We all love it. Everyone learns everyone else’s recipes. It’s an exchange of richness and words. People are speaking different languages and somehow they understand each other.
What often happens is that when someone feels comfortable, they switch from English to their native tongue. And sometimes I can see it happening that people are just understanding each other, although they’re speaking different languages! I don’t know how that happens, but they kind of get used to each other.
Can you think of an example of cross cultural pollination you’ve witnessed?
Our Nepali chef makes a lot of momos (dumplings) but she makes a vegetarian version, since she’s a vegetarian. Our Iraqi chef loves beef. What she does is make her own beef filling and fills the momos with that. So now we have something with an Iraqi filling on the inside but it’s momos on the outside.
Does food generate sensory cultural memories for you? And do you feel that your chefs have the same relationship with food?
Personally, the easiest way to remember is to call home, but there’s a seven-hour time difference in Lebanon. The second easiest way is to make something, try some food. The spices and things will sometimes bring back certain memories. I always have those ingredients I would need to make something Lebanese very quickly at home. And I think that’s also true with our chefs. At home they cook food from their own countries. If they already cook it so well for their families, we want them to cook it for New Yorkers and help New Yorkers discover the kind of cooking they do at home.
I’m wondering about the challenge of going from cooking at home to a professional kitchen. I cook a lot at home but I can’t imagine cooking on a line. That seems very intense.
All of our chefs are very passionate about home cooking. They already have that talent of knowing what to put next or when to add the oil or at what point you mix the ingredients. All this knowledge you might be able to learn somewhere, but really it takes years and years of watching someone making it or having someone tell you.
We’re really counting on that knowledge that they’ve acquired from their mothers and grandmothers and grandfathers or whoever taught them to cook. Then scale comes in, learning how to move in a professional kitchen and to take your recipe from cooking for five people to 200, 300, 700 people. A dish that has a lot of tomatoes — instead of chopping five or six tomatoes for your family, you’re chopping 200 or 300 tomatoes! It can get challenging and it also can get boring. That’s why you have a big team, where everyone works in a line and helps each other out.
Tell me about the impetus behind the cookbook.
We want change the narrative around refugees. We wanted to get our story out in a different format. The fact is that people — outside of New York, outside of the United States even — are sending us a lot of messages asking, “Can you send us food?” Well, we can’t send food, so we wanted to find something that we could send all over, a way for us to get our story told beyond New York, not with food, but with recipes.