This Catering Company Hires Refugee Chefs
At Eat Offbeat, they create dishes that offer a link to the past and some hope for the future.
Carmen's kitchen once looked out upon a municipal garden full of flowering fruit trees in a working-class quarter of Aleppo. Then, in 2012, the Syrian civil war erupted and, with it, life as Carmen had known it ended. The garden was destroyed, its beds torn up by repeated bombings. The kitchen may still be standing, but Carmen isn’t in it. She’s joined the 11.4 million Syrians forced from their homes by the brutal war. Those who have managed to get out are the lucky ones, and many of them—most of them—will never see Aleppo again.
To be driven from one’s home means to leave behind not only all that is familiar, but also all the combinations of familiar things that make home feel like home. It is impossible to catalog all that is lost. It is not just the window; it is the view. It is not just the stove—Carmen had recently saved up to buy a new one when she had to flee the city with her husband and two young daughters—but the particles of dust dancing in the steam from the kettle every afternoon.
Now the Aleppo she knew is gone. What was once a many-hued identity, built over millennia of trade as the terminus of the Silk Road, is known now through its absence. One of the innumerable things that has been erased is the subtlety and richness of what Aleppo was—namely, the best food city on earth.
Aleppian cuisine is a centuries-old culinary palimpsest that includes Chinese milk pudding, lamb-and-pistachio mortadella introduced by medieval traders, infinite permutations of kibbeh and a generous use of pomegranate. The city had, until it burned down in September 2012, the largest covered market of its kind in the world, with aisles and aisles of spices piled high in bright and fragrant pyramids, in burlap and barrels, under ancient stone arches dating to the 15th century.
In his most famous work, The Epistle of Forgiveness, the 11th-century poet Al-Ma‘arrī claims, “The cooks in paradise are from Aleppo.” In the recently released The Aleppo Cookbook, Marlene Matar writes: “Aleppians have always had a love affair with their food!...The uniqueness of Aleppian cuisine is not surprising considering the fertility of the land around it and the distinct mix of influences...that converged to make this food so distinctive.” Or, as Carmen puts it, “Everything’s good. Everything.”
Carmen is fiftysomething years old, with deep dimples and an easy smile. She is extremely proud of her culinary prowess, as many Aleppians are. I meet her for the first time in a commercial kitchen on an industrial block in a part of Queens that still feels gritty—not boho-gritty, just gritty. Carmen, who doesn’t use her last name out of privacy concerns, is one of the 12 chefs at Eat Offbeat, a catering company that employs chefs like her to make the food they made at a home they fled.
On any given day, one finds chefs from the ever-growing atlas of lands beset by conflict and war: Syria, Iraq, Nepal, Tibet, Guinea, Eritrea, Côte d’Ivoire. And on any given day, the scents and smells of those faraway countries emerge from pots and pans such that the air is pregnant with cardamom and coriander from Nepal, turmeric and cubeb from Iraq, and daqqa, Aleppo’s famous seven-spice powder, which Carmen uses in her specialty, hashwe, a traditional rice stuffing studded with ground chicken.
The idea for Eat Offbeat came to Manal Kahi and her brother, Wissam, shortly after Manal arrived from her native Lebanon to study environmental management at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “I couldn’t find any good hummus,” she says, “so I began making it myself.” Among the graduate students, her hummus caused a sensation. But, she says, “I knew my grandmother could do better.” This was in 2013, shortly after the Syrian Army launched the deadly Aleppo offensive, and it quickly occurred to Manal, whose grandmother is Syrian, to seek out refugees to make food from their home countries—the dishes that are part of their cultural identity—as a way of preserving and promoting it. And why constrain it to the Middle East? she thought: “There are refugees from everywhere, and they are often from places not well represented in the culinary scene.”
Eat Offbeat officially launched in November 2015. Already, it has served more than 15,000 meals to companies and universities, families and nonprofits, to groups of 10 to 700 people. One of the reasons for the success, says Manal, is that “people want to help.” She notes, with a faint smile, “Some people find us by Googling ‘How to help refugees in New York.’” They come back, however, for the food. “We always emphasize,” she says, “that our cooks are refugees by status but chefs by nature.”
Over the past year, the menu at Eat Offbeat has been refined and iterated, and the skills of the cooks honed with the help of chef Juan Suarez de Lezo, a tall Spaniard who spent time in the kitchens of El Bulli, Arzak, Mugaritz and Per Se. As Eat Offbeat’s chief culinary officer, he has helped train the cooks to operate in a professional kitchen; to say “behind” when passing another cook and “hot” when holding something straight out of the oven; to boil, drain and rinse garlic three times in order to dull its potency but retain its sweetness; to keep their stations clean; and to portion a homemade recipe for a party of 300. But, by and large, what these women use day in and day out is the intuitive and unadulterated knowledge from their homes.
As a rule, each chef at Eat Offbeat learns how to prepare the recipes of her fellow chefs. Rachana, a mild-mannered cook from Nepal, might be mixing the berbere spice used in an Eritrean lentil stew, while Mitslal, who is from Eritrea, might be rubbing rosewater on phyllo dough for Carmen’s baklava. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way. “No one can make potato kibbeh like Dhuha does,” says Manal, watching as a pretty 29-year-old with jet-black hair drops perfectly formed croquettes of ground beef wrapped in potato dough into bubbling oil. As the kibbeh turns brown and crispy, Dhuha explains that she’s been making it this way since she was a little girl in Baghdad. “My mother taught me,” she says, “and her mother taught her.” The trick, she says, pushing her palms together and slightly rotating them, is in the formation of the patties for the right density and shape. It took years of sitting at the same kitchen table in their apartment, making kibbeh for birthdays and graduations, marriages and anniversaries, for the movement to become automatic.
When Dhuha came to America, she left everything behind. She couldn’t bring her parents or the table or her kitchen or its view. But what she could bring was the secret to making tremendous kibbeh. It’s not home, but it’s a gesture of home. Sometimes a gesture is all that remains, and it’s nourishing just the same. eatoffbeat.com.