From traditional Nepalese dumplings and Iraqi baba ghanouj to heaping containers of East African lentils, the variety of authentic cuisines prepared in the kitchen of New York City catering and delivery company Eat Offbeat spans the globe.
Even more refreshing? So do the men and women who make up its kitchen staff. In fact, all seven of Eat Offbeat’s employees came to the United States as asylum seekers or refugees who fled other countries. And, not one of them had any prior professional culinary experience.
One of the company’s two founders, Manal Kahi, who plans to continue to hire and train refugees to work in the kitchen, explains that her motivation is partly humanitarian and partly business-savvy. She and her co-founder/brother, Wissam Kahi, believe that in a city saturated with excellent ethnic cuisine, their hiring practices lend them a way to stand out from the crowd.
We are really focusing on these new and off-the-beaten-path cuisines. Refugees are coming from countries that have cuisines we don’t really know…it’s not cuisines that you find at every corner.
The experience of being an international transplant in New York is one that Manal understands well having moved to the city from Lebanon as a student. Coincidentally, in 2014 when she started considering the possibility of running her own kitchen, Syrians had begun fleeing their homes in droves heading for her native Lebanon.
Ruminating on how she could contribute to the humanitarian efforts to aid the Syrian refugees, Manal stumbled upon the idea of employing them to make the traditional recipes she had come to love.
I was feeling very hopeless about it. When I got this idea of making hummus, I thought maybe Syrian refugees could be making it.
While other aspects of her eventual business plan changed, the idea of employing refugees remained. To get the ball rolling, Manal, having recognized the impact that an industry influencer could bring to her cause, enlisted the help of high-profile chef Juan Suarez de Lezo. By then partnering with the International Rescue Committee, an organization with a humanitarian mission to resettle refugees and asylum seekers, Manal and her brother were able get staffing underway.
Now, only five months into their soft launch phase, Eat Offbeat is already preparing nearly 200 meals each week out of a rented commercial kitchen in Queens. While catering is only currently available for groups of at least 10 people, plans are in the works to open up delivery to individuals.
As for the menu, that is expected to change as well, with Manal planning to take dishes out of the rotation if and when the employee who makes the recipe leaves her employ.
We want to keep it tied to them.
While every employee learns how to make recipes other than his or her own, Manal shares that retiring dishes from the menu is a nod to the fact that Eat Offbeat is just as much about celebrating people as it is about the food those people make.
Wherever they go from here, it seems clear that Manal and her brother have a bright future in the culinary industry. After a successful start in New York, any other market should prove child’s play. As Frank Sinatra famously sang, if you can make it there you’ll make it anywhere.