The last place on earth Manal Kahi thought she’d struggle to find anything that came close to the quality and flavor of her Lebanese grandmother’s hummus was New York City. And yet struggle she did, until she connected with a Syrian refugee whose recipe did the trick.
The experience lit her entrepreneurial lightbulb, and together with her brother and co-founder Wissan, she made it her mission to bring new and underrepresented ethnic cuisine to the city by employing resettled refugees to create “food without borders.” The immigrant entrepreneurs from Beirut, Lebanon, started Eat Offbeat, a Queens, New York-based catering startup delivers authentic, home-style ethnic meals that are conceived, prepared and delivered by refugees the Kahi siblings personally hired who resettled in New York City.
The first goal of the business “is to provide quality jobs to those who are seeking to be in a professional kitchen environment,” Manal Kahi, who emigrated to the U.S. in 2013, told Free Enterprise. “The second is to build bridges to those eating the food and those eating it, and the third is to change the narrative around refugees.”
Cooking Up Opportunity
The refugee community in the United States is vast, with about 3 million refugees, from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa resettling in the U.S. following the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, according to the Pew Research Center. They are often fleeing violence and oppression in their home countries due to on religion, race, and nationality or political affiliation.
In the past year, the entrepreneurial siblings have worked hard to do their part to help the oft-ignored community, training and hiring 16 chefs from 11 countries, feeding an estimated 15,000 New Yorkers so far.
Through her nascent business, Kahi offers a fresh start in the U.S. to individuals from foreign countries who, like her, recently relocated to the Big Apple. At the same time, the former environmental consultant hopes to open up people’s palates to more of the flavors of the world.
More than anything, she aims to open hearts and minds with every bite of Eat Offbeat’s specialty dishes, raising awareness around the benefits of hiring refugees.
“Once you discover their foods, you’re like, ‘Whoa, I never thought they had such great cuisine,’” Kahi said. “We feel like through food, people can have a pathway to be a little more curious, and to try to discover and learn more about that specific country.”
As for the food, a typical catering menu from Eat Offbeat encompasses dishes from up to five countries that its refugee chefs hail from. The chefs cook mouthwatering meals ranging from Nepali-Syrian edamame salad to Eritrean lentils puree, to chari bari, chicken or beef meatballs in a Nepalese sauce, to Iraqi rice biryani and much more.
A few short months ago, Chef Nasrin (who prefers that her last name not be used), originally from Iran, came to the U.S. from Turkey as a refugee through a U.N. program with her three children. She’s one of the many home cooks Kahi hired. Her new job enables her to provide for herself and her family here in America while also doing something she truly loves — cooking.
Kahi also gave her hope and a sense of belonging.
“When I arrived in the U.S. as a mother of three, I was very afraid of uncertainties and unclear circumstances here,” Nasrin said. “Eat Offbeat made me feel empowered to work, as if I were among my countrymen, my friends.”
Back in Iran, Nasrin’s grandmother taught her how to cook dishes native to her country. Her favorite recipe to cook for Eat Offbeat customers is fesenjan, a savory-sweet blend of saffron, sugar, pomegranate sauce, walnuts, meat and onions.
Made With Love
“I would like people to familiarize themselves with our cuisine and get to know how we prepare food,” Nasrin said. “I would love for cuisine to have a special place in people’s hearts.”
As the saying goes, sometimes the fastest way to people’s hearts is through their stomachs. And that’s the very heart of Eat Offbeat, Kahi says.
“The entire idea for us is to help people start seeing us for who we are,” she said, “to start seeing our chefs for the chefs they are, before people frame them as refugees.”
For Nasrin, the essence of her work at Eat Offbeat is unity — bringing people together around a table to bridge tastes and cultures.
“People from any culture and language can coexist with one another with love and affection,” she said, wiping tears of joy from her eye.