A Kent café connects diners to local refugees
Today, Bebe Renzaho, Iryna Mykhalchuk and Tenaye Adem will cook dishes like Burmese chicken curry, Ukranian borscht and Ethiopian injera spicy beef rolls for their first paying lunch customers at the newly opened Ubuntu Street Café in Kent.
The three women — from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine and Ethiopia, respectively — are all recently arrived immigrants or refugees apprenticing in a training café run by the Kent nonprofit Project Feast, designed to turn their home cooking skills into marketable job skills in the food industry.
When they first began the program in January, they could not have predicted they'd be officially opening their café doors on the same day Trump's travel ban was scheduled to go in effect. (Trump has twice issued executive orders seeking to temporarily block entry to citizens of several majority-Muslim countries and suspend admission of new refugees. Both orders have been blocked by the courts, with the most recent ruling coming down on Wednesday, just hours before the travel ban was to have taken effect).
The women also could not have predicted they would be opening for business in the wake of a March 3 shooting that occurred just a 10-minute drive from the café. The shooting is being investigated as a possible hate crime that targeted a Kent Sikh man. Deep Rai was shot in the arm after reportedly being told “go back to your own country.” Leaders of Project Feast note the city of Kent, for its part, has been a key café supporter.
For Project Feast founder and executive director Veena Prasad, a University of Washington MBA graduate who emigrated with her family from Bangalore as a teen, the heated national political climate around refugees, immigrants and immigration makes “the need for this café now even greater.”
Ubuntu Street Café is tucked inside the 1907 Titusville Station Building, past Sushi Kuine and the Kent Downtown Partnership. It serves Project Feast’s mission: to harness the power of food to build community across cultures and transform the lives of refugees and immigrants.
“Food is a way to bring people together,” Prasad says. “We could use so much more of that these days, even in liberal Seattle.”
Adds former Project Feast trainee Sheelan Shamdeen, who arrived in Des Moines in 1996 as a refugee from Iraqi Kurdistan (and is now a U.S. citizen): “These are scary times. But we’re all just human beings. Hopefully the café will help everyone to see that.”
At a nuts-and-bolts level, the café is designed to teach a variety of kitchen, job and leadership skills. Apprentices work under the experienced eye of Executive Chef Lisa Nakamura, whose cooking bona fides include Napa Valley’s French Laundry and her own former restaurants, Allium on Orcas Island and Gnocchi Bar on Capitol Hill. After hours, food entrepreneurs with the Food Innovation Network, including many former Project Feast trainees, will take over the café kitchen to incubate their own ventures.
But the café is also meant to give customers more than just tasty grab-and-go lunch fare inspired by the varied heritage of trainees past, present and future.
“We want people to put a face to who’s cooking their food and to humanize it,” Prasad says, noting the restaurant industry’s reliance on immigrant labor. “We want it to go beyond a transactional relationship.”
The café name defines that intention. The concept of “Ubuntu” roughly translates from South Africa’s Nguni Bantu language as “the belief in the bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”
Exchanges between customers and apprentices seem inevitable in the fully open kitchen, with the few atrium tables facing a glass wall overlooking the small space that once served up hoagies and meatloaf as the (now closed) Perk Up Place Café. Prasad envisions pop-up community dinners (for now it’s lunch only) as well as cards with apprentices' bios accompanying every to-go bag.
“We often stay in our silos,” according to neighborhood, race, ethnicity or class, Prasad says. “We’re comfortable staying with our own, not just for white people, but any ethnic group. It’s fun for us to shake that up a little — or a lot.”
Beyond the café, Project Feast tries to build community through monthly Migrating Meals at immigrant- and refugee-run restaurants as well as Potluck for Peace events with the Interfaith Community Sanctuary.
Since launching in 2013, Project Feast has trained some 150 people, helping them earn food handler permits, learn commercial kitchen basics and practice skills through its catering operation. But organizers gradually realized the immigrant and refugee home cooks (mostly women) needed more comprehensive, longer-term training.
The tight-knit crew of Renzaho, Mykhalchuk and Adem are the first in the new four-month apprenticeship, which is accredited by Highline College. Menu planning, recipe development, marketing, customer service, public speaking (many trainees are working to improve their English) and how to work efficiently and safely in a fast-paced commercial kitchen — it's all part of the program. So are resume writing, networking and job placement support.
“We want to inspire leadership, for themselves, their families, their communities,” Prasad says.
The apprentices seem to have taken that message to heart. All three eventually want their own businesses but say they first need job experience in U.S. kitchens. “This [training] is giving me my chance to jump in,” says Mykhalchuk, a 30-year-old Federal Way mother of three who worked in a bakery and school cafeteria in Ukraine and envisions opening her own bakery someday.
Renzaho, a 27-year-old SeaTac mother of three from the Democratic Republic of Congo, ran a simple eatery serving up rice and beans and chapatti over a charcoal stove in the Malawi refugee camp where she once lived. Both she and Adem, a 48-year-old SeaTac grandmother who once worked as a hotel receptionist in her native Ethiopia, would like to eventually open their own restaurants.
“I want customers to see the apprentices as people, as new Americans,” says Chef Nakamura, whose own great grandfather emigrated from Japan around the turn of the century to work in Hawaii’s sugarcane plantations. “My goal is not only to introduce customers to delicious food from around the world, but to help [my students] integrate into society and American kitchens.
"Food can break down barriers," Nakamura says. "It all starts with the stomach.”