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Manal Kahi emigrated from Lebanon to pursue a Master’s Degree in International Public Affairs at Columbia University. Her dream was to work on international climate policy as an environmental consultant. Then, her career plans were sidetracked by hummus; her Syrian-born grandmother’s, specifically.
Feeling homesick and frustrated by sub-par store-bought hummus, Manal attempted her grandmother’s recipe. She had never made hummus before, but her nostalgia-fueled cravings motivated her to get cracking. Friends who tasted the finished product begged for more. Manal mentioned the rave reviews to her entrepreneurial brother, Wissam, and the pair began to discuss business propositions.
Manal, who has warm brown eyes and an easy laugh, had never pictured herself running a culinary business. Not interested in spending her days handling chickpeas, Manal considered a way to intersect her passion for social impact with her taste for authentic global cuisine. Thus, Eat Offbeat was born: a food delivery company staffed by refugees who conceive and cook each recipe. Manal saw a dual opportunity to provide jobs to recently resettled refugees and provide New Yorkers with eclectic ethnic meals, such as the Discoverer’s Trek (for $15 per person), which includes Nepalese jackfruit salad and chari bari meatballs, Eritrean lentils, and Syrian cumin rice.
Today, Eat Offbeat employs 10 to 15 immigrant women who represent countries from Nepal to Guinea. To find their employees, Manal and Wissam work with the International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps refugees overcome cultural barriers by providing immediate aid and support in securing jobs, learning English, adapting to American customs, and becoming citizens. Each woman (men are encouraged to apply as well) has contributed a recipe they have carried with them from their country of origin. The dish is incorporated into the Eat Offbeat menu repertoire, and each chef then learns how to replicate it.
Juan Suarez de Lozo, a seasoned chef who cut his teeth in the famed kitchens of El Bulli and Per Se, oversees culinary operations and works to refine the recipes so that they are scalable and tempered to an American palate. Ingredients don't change, but heat levels—as was the case with a lightly battered Nepalese cauliflower fritter dish in a piquant sauce—are sometimes softened.
De Lozo, who is more accustomed to making foie gras than babaganoush, considers his current position a mutually beneficial learning experience. While he imparts culinary technique to the women, he’s been humbled by their ability to make all of their ingredients from scratch, including ground spice blends. "No one taught me that before," he tells me in his thick Spanish accent.
Sales have doubled after Donald Trump announced his first immigration ban on January 31, but that does not cancel out the uncertainty and fear experienced by the staff, who are determined to “get through each day and get past these four years,” in the words of Satakshi, a bubbly 24-year-old with jet black hair and thick glasses—and Eat Offbeat’s Operations Manager. On the day that I visited their commissary kitchen in Long Island City, she was on her way to deliver a lunch order in Manhattan, and let me accompany her. Her mother, Rachana, came to the United States during the Nepalese Civil War, eight years before Satakshi and the rest of her family were granted permission to join her. Which is to say, restrictions on immigration from war-torn countries have always been incredibly strict. The new executive order directly affects an Iraqi colleague of Satakshi, who cancelled her plans to visit Jordan for a family reunion. She hasn’t seen her parents in seven years.
For her part, tasting new foods has altered Satakshi’s perception about several of the countries that she previously only understood through media reports. Before living in New York and working at Eat Offbeat, Satakshi didn't imagine she'd become friends with someone from Iraq because of language and cultural differences. Despite the current rhetoric coming from the White House, refugees that have arrived in the United States are not monolithic, and there are still prejudices to overcome even amongst marginalized populations. But Satakshi believes that sharing food, and cooking together, encourages compassion and tolerance. Case and point: the fusion Syrian-Nepalese dish of edamame salad with shredded cabbage and tomatoes, offered in the “1001 Night’s Delights” menu.
El Bahia, a new employee from Algeria, is working on developing her signature dish. She tells me that when she immigrated to the United States, her luggage consisted only of some clothing and dried couscous, which she knew would survive the long trip. She knew she would be meeting new people, and rationalized that the semolina grain was the best way to introduce herself and explain her native Algeria. "I didn't know who I would be cooking for,” she said, “but I thought that I would present myself through my food.”
Satakshi insists that it is food—not social good will—that will keep hungry clients coming back, like the Syrian interpretation of shawarma with slow-cooked chicken in a sweet and tangy sauce. Other dishes, like adas (Eritrean lentils pureed with hot berbere spices) and eech (an Armenian-Syrian hybrid salad of cracked bulgar wheat, spring onions, parsley, and pomegranate molasses), represent cuisines that rarely take center stage in New York City—despite our affinity for ethnic food. "It's totally intentional," says Manal. "Eat Offbeat is about trying new cuisines," she continues. "Not French or Italian, but Senegalese, Iraqi, and Eritrean." Eat Offbeat helps refugees, but it also helps New Yorkers expand their palates. And, perhaps most importantly, chefs who typically lack an audience are validated and empowered as cooks.
Meals can be ordered online for groups of 10 people or more, with at least two-days’ notice. True to Manal’s environmentalist background, customizable or pre-arranged feasts arrive in compostable packaging, and are ideal for corporate lunches or parties—where it has the power to foster dialogue about human rights, and perhaps leads to activism that goes beyond enjoying a meal. Among larger tech companies, where diversity is a struggle, there needs to be an environment for this kind of conversation—a pathway, however limited, to better understand the individuals doing the cooking.
Manal says she hopes to eventually expand to other cities with refugee communities and adventurous eaters. For now, she'll continue to bring on more employees as the business continues to grow. A forthcoming cookbook, a Kickstarter project, will feature the recipes and stories of the chefs. The cookbook will put on paper what’s most important to the chefs: using their recipes to feel connected to their pasts while forging a path for their futures in a new country they can call home. When people taste the food, and they like it, it makes the chef's proud, Manal says. "It always makes them feel more welcome. It is the ultimate sign of acceptance."
Would you like to see an Eat Offbeat cookbook? Tell us in the comments!