“My favorite dish to cook is momos. In Nepal, everyone likes to eat them because it’s a cold country and this is a hot dish that you can sell off the street,” Rachana Rimal says, as she starts to chop up onions with all the flair of a professional chef. Except Rimal isn’t a professional chef; she’s a resettled refugee from Kathmandu, Nepal, who came to New York in 2006.
Nida Al Janabi’s favorite dish to cook, meanwhile, is also an Iraqi treasured meal: dolma—grape leaves stuffed heartily with onions, eggplants, zucchini, collard greens, rice, and meat, all seasoned, she says, with “special spices.” She starts the food prep while listing all her favorite meals to cook, starting with kebabs and ending with biryani—“and I mean Iraqi biryani.” Along with her sister and mother, Janabi fled from Iraq and arrived in New York last year. It’s been a tough year for her, being in a strange city and surrounded by people who speak a language she can’t fully understand yet. But “it feels good to cook home food in a foreign country,” she says.
Both Rimal and Janabi are resettled refugees who work as chefs for Eat Offbeat, a social and business venture in New York City developed by Manal Kahi, her brother, Wissam Kahi and professional chef, Juan Suarez de Lezo. The idea is to employ refugees in good jobs with benefits to cook the foods of their homelands and deliver it around the city. Eat Offbeat hasn’t fully launched yet, but the company has been doing small catering events and holding tastings to see what dishes people like. They plan on launching their delivery services next month.
“On average, we’re in the kitchen twice a week,” Kahi says, “which means we do one or two events per week.” Kahi lives in downtown Brooklyn, and the company is registered there. While they plan to deliver to all neighborhoods in New York City Kahi and her team have their eye on Brooklyn. “I think Eat Offbeat will be a hit in Brooklyn. There’s this impression or assumption that people in Brooklyn are very open-minded and they always want to try something new- new restaurants, new trends, new experiences,” she says. Wissam Kahi, who is in charge of the business strategy for the venture, adds that they are “currently looking for a kitchen in the area.” Brooklyn, he says, is a neighborhood “that’s well-suited and culturally adaptive to what we are trying to offer.”
While the social impact aspect of helping refugees find employment is important to Kahi, she understands that it may not necessarily be crucial to their customers. “What we’re selling is also a discovery, an opportunity to taste food from a country you’ve never been to, or a cuisine you’ve never tried,” she says, “That’s where the name comes from, it’s off beat. It’s off the beaten path.”
Originally an environmental consultant in Beirut, Manal Kahi stumbled into this idea for a business when she came to do her masters in public administration at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) two years ago. She graduated last year, and somewhere along the way, “this idea for a business where refugees cooked and sold authentic home meals came to me,” Kahi says.
But the venture isn’t just about selling good food cooked by home cooks. “My idea had its roots in social impact—providing jobs to recently resettled refugees,” she says. Three refugee chefs are employed by Eat Offbeat at the moment, and Kahi says the company is in the process of hiring more.
When Kahi arrived in New York in 2013, it was the peak of the refugee crisis in Lebanon. “It wasn’t a ‘thing’ here or in Europe then,” she says. “But since 2011, refugees started pouring into Lebanon from Syria.” Back home, growing issue in Lebanon had concerned her. “I felt hopeless, like I couldn’t do anything about it. The situation was really hard,” she says. When she came to the U.S., the issue continued to occupy a space in the back of her mind, as she says, “it was one of the factors that helped formulate the idea and give it perspective.”
Another factor that helped solidify her idea: bad hummus. “In Lebanon, we have very good hummus. The hummus you can buy at supermarkets here? Yeah, it sucks,” she says. Kahi would often make her own hummus, which received a lot of compliments from her friends here in New York.
That got Kahi thinking, “Where could I find someone that would make hummus as good as my grandmother’s? And Syrian refugees just made sense. So I thought let’s not just make good hummus, let’s have Syrian refugees make hummus—the same one they would make at home.” From there on, the idea started to evolve, and now Eat Offbeat offers a growing myriad of cuisines and dishes, cooked by refugees from different places. “The most important key is authenticity, but not just of the food, but also of their experiences,” Kahi says, “it’s all their recipes.”
Kahi and her brother started off with modest funds from friends and family, but winning a grant from the Tamer Fund for Social Ventures a few months ago “not only helped us in terms of funding, but also gave us and our idea some validation,” she says. Kahi is working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to find and recruit refugees for Eat Offbeat.
For Nida Al Janabi, cooking for Eat Offbeat is her first job in New York, and it makes her happy. “Life here is difficult, and expensive. This is comforting,” she says. And while this job helps her pay her bills, there is sentimental value in it too. “I’m proud because what I’m making, the food I’m cooking, represents my country. I’m proud of that.”
And as Rachana Rimal says, “it’s gratifying to serve people here home food.” Cooking is her passion. In fact, she has her own website that focuses on sweet dishes. “When I first came here, it was very very bad for me. Nobody was here, none of my family,” Rimal recounts, “one of my friends here helped me out and I started work as a babysitter. It was a very difficult time in my life, to be away from home and family.”
But now she says, “I’m doing something I love and now my family is here with me too, except for my son who isn’t here yet.” Rimal’s two daughters and husband are in New York with her now. Her oldest daughter is studying for her masters degree in NYU, while her younger one just finished taking her LSAT. “She wants to study law at Columbia, that’s her dream,” Rimal says, “and to be here, earning money doing something I love, is mine.”
(Featured image by Eva Cruz: Chef Nida Al Janabi and chef Mitslal Tedla work with Chief Culinary Officer, Juan Suarez de Lezo)