Originally published at www.reachutmost.com
In western culture, food can be a fraught topic. We focus much on its nutritional value, its caloric value, its glycemic index. Eat Offbeat, a company in New York City that trains refugees to become chefs, reminds us that what we eat is much more complex than that. Food is also about community and connection.
From Their Kitchens To Our Tables
Eat Offbeat’s business model is wonderfully straightforward. They hire refugees that have settled in the United States to cook their own home recipes and sell them. Along the way, the new-comers are trained with the culinary skills to be chefs in this country. The cooks get a good job that comes with valuable training and the company gets a product. But that simple business model belies the true nature of what is happening. At the heart is connection, and connection leads to cultural exchange.
The people that come to Eat Offbeat are not chefs from other countries. The recipes they create are not cuisines from fancy restaurants. These are people sharing foods inspired by what they have eaten with their own families, in their own homes, their whole lives. The dishes are a direct connection to what they have both left behind, and also brought with them. “Food is such a visceral thing,” says Courtney Sproule, Communications and Special Events Director at Eat Offbeat. “It is tied to our chef’s memories of home. It is wonderful for them to be able, through their work, to share that part of themselves with us in New York City.”
Food, The Great Communicator
In this sense, Eat Offbeat is a facilitator of communication. Indeed, many of the refugees that end up in their kitchen do not yet speak english. The act of cooking creates a structure through which refugees can connect without words, first with each other, and then ultimately with their new countrymen and women. They cook and learn side by side, sharing parts of their personal culture while experiencing, together, their new shared life in America. They then personally deliver their creations to customers, who get to eat something new while meeting the individual behind it.
The benefits of this exchange, Sproule says, truly flow in both directions. “Even though this is New York and we have so much, these are very specific dishes. Customers comment often that they have never tasted these flavors and that it’s opening a new world to them.” The ability of this mutually beneficial exchange can hardly be overstated. “It makes all parties feel, especially at a time when things are so politically divisive, like they are bridging across cultures.”
New Relationships All Around
In today’s fast pace world it can be easy to forget, or even to dismiss, this cultural side of eating. In a world overrun with fast food, take out, and instant options, Eat Offbeat reminds us that there is a meaningful and powerful side to food. It can be a connector, to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. Perhaps there are secrets here that can help us find a more just, equitable, and above all healthy food system. As Miss Sproule puts it, “You can’t separate the ingredients from the soil they come from. And just the same, you can’t separate the cultural and the social elements from the cuisines those ingredients create.”