Marin Cogan reports for the Washington Post:
“On a Thursday morning in June, near the end of Ramadan, Majed Abdulraheem arrives for work at Union Kitchen. The brightly lit, shared commercial kitchen space in Northeast Washington is ﬁlled with chef’s tables, pastry racks and the bustling of a dozen cooks building ﬂedgling businesses. It’s Chef Majed’s second time at work today. Fasting makes the daytime heat of the kitchen too hard to manage, and so he was in the kitchen preparing orders late last night, into the early morning.
Abdulraheem, 29, works at Foodhini, a meal delivery service that employs immigrant chefs in Washington. The start-up was founded by Noobtsaa Philip Vang, a child of refugees from Laos, who discovered, after arriving from Minnesota to Georgetown three years ago to get his MBA, that he was missing the Hmong cuisine he grew up with. “I was really craving some of my mom’s food,” says Vang, “and I was thinking I wanted to find a grandma or auntie that was living in the neighborhood somewhere and just buy some of their food.”
He started mulling his own family’s immigration story: When his mom came to the United States, she had limited English skills, and finding work was difficult. His dad sometimes worked multiple jobs, sleeping in his car between shifts, to make sure the family had enough money to survive. What his mother did have, which might have been marketable if only she’d had the resources, was incredible skill as a chef. “There’s got to be a way to create opportunities for people like my mom,” he thought.
Abdulraheem is one of Foodhini’s first chefs. On its website, he offers a menu of his own design: bamiatan, a dish of crisp mini okra sauteed in garlic and topped with cilantro; mutabbal, an eggplant-tahini dip similar to baba ghanouj; and kebab hindi, meatballs cooked in a spiced tomato stew. Like Vang, his love for food and for family are inextricably intertwined: Many of the items on Abdulraheem’s menu are dishes his mother used to make for him when he was a kid growing up in a small town in southern Syria. Even after attending culinary school in Syria, and after years of working in restaurants, he still considers her, his original teacher, to be the better chef.
“You have to love cooking to be good at it,” Abdulraheem tells me through an interpreter. He is preparing the vegetables for fattoush, a staple salad of lettuce, tomato and crunchy pita chips. He stacks long leaves of romaine lettuce, one on top of the other, slicing them crosswise into small confetti ribbons as he talks, before perfectly dicing tomatoes. He cuts huge lemons in half, just once, and squeezes the juice out of them effortlessly. It’s a simple dish but one he loves to make, because it’s both universal and endlessly customizable. “I’m making fattoush, my wife will make fattoush, you can make fattoush,” he says. “But each time it will come out a little bit different, because it’s a reflection of you.”
When Abdulraheem arrived here in 2016, he became part of a long history of immigrants — often refugees — who reached the United States and began making food. You can find this tradition in Eden Center, the Northern Virginia strip mall packed with pho restaurants and pan-Asian groceries, built up by Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s. You can see it in the popular Ethiopian restaurants on U Street; in the restaurants of Peter Chang, who fled Washington’s Chinese Embassy in 2003 and acquired one of the most loyal followings of any chef in America; or in the Thai and Indian restaurants in large cities and small towns across the country.
. . . .
What Abdulraheem and other refugee chefs bring when they come to America has implications beyond the kitchen. Cooking the dishes — sharing the foods of their home country — is a way of ensuring “that identity and heritage are not lost just because the homeland is,” says Poopa Dweck, author of the book “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews.” They are “documenting history, in some way, for the next generation.”
It’s this diversity — the richness of so many cuisines and cultures, brought from all over the world — that makes American food so outstanding. At the moment, however, that tradition is under threat. The Trump administration has dedicated a lot of energy to barring Syrian refugees like Abdulraheem from coming into the country, while waging a multifront campaign against undocumented immigrants from Latin America. Continuing on this path would have a profound impact — not just on our food, but on our national identity.
It can be hard to explain to people who view immigration as a threat just what we stand to lose when we turn away from this ideal. Maybe a grand argument about American values isn’t the best place to begin. Maybe it’s best to start smaller, somewhere closer to home — somewhere like the dinner table.
There are things that Majed Abdulraheem doesn’t usually talk about when he’s at work chopping vegetables. But they’re on his mind a lot: How, on his last visit to his parents’ home in 2013, they begged him not to return to his apartment in Damascus but to flee Syria across the border to Jordan instead. How he did as his parents asked. And how he never got to see his father, who became ill during his exile, before he died.
. . . .
The culinary education of refugee chefs is unusual. It is at once cosmopolitan — thanks to the fusing of different influences during the chef’s travels — and narrowly defined by both physical barriers and the limitations of circumstance. The journeys of refugee chefs often spark creativity, born of necessity. The education, just like the migration, is sui generis. Just like America.”
Read the complete article at the above link.
The irony is certainly not lost on me. Refugees overcome great obstacles to contribute to America’s greatness; immigrants (including, yes, those without legal status) help us prosper as a society; guys like Trump and Sessions are corrosive negative influences who contribute little of positive value and do great damage to our country, our society, and our collective future every day they hold power, despite having having been given every chance to make positive contributions.
America’s continued greatness, and perhaps our ultimate survival as a nation, depends on whether we can use the legal system and the ballot box to remove corrosive influences like Trump, Sessions, and their ill-intentioned cronies from office before they can completely destroy our country.