How Project Feast Prepares Immigrants, Refugees For Jobs In The Kitchen
In an industrial kitchen in Tukwila, a kitchen timer has the attention of a group of Congolese, Ethiopian and Iraqi men and women.
The instructor asks: What does it do?
It is used to “count the wait,” says one student named Terefe Weldeyohannes. “Not weight, but wait — how long it takes to cook.”
For the immigrants, names of common kitchen tools can seem impenetrable. Words like grater, peeler and plastic wrap prompt blank stares and head scratching.
But some are easier than others. When reviewing the many types of knife cuts, for example, a Congolese man who speaks African French lights up. Words like julienne, batonnet and chiffonade trigger a crystal-clear association.
Within weeks, this class of immigrants and refugees will learn the language of the kitchen, as well as the basics of food handling and kitchen safety. Upon completion of the course, they’ll learn how to plan and properly scale recipes, consult with a head chef and work efficiently as a team. Finally, as a capstone to their coursework, they’ll compose, prepare and share multi-course feasts featuring the specialties of their home countries.
But first, there’s a lot to learn. They’re only in week two of a six-week course called Project Feast, a free, nonprofit job-training program to guide immigrants and refugees through the basic skills necessary to procure work in the food industry. The class meets twice a week at a commercial kitchen in the Tukwila Community Center.
A ‘Sense Of Culture Through Food’
Veena Prasad is the creator of Project Feast. A native of India, she says she understands the trials of acclimating to a new culture.
“I’ve seen how much skill it takes to be able to adapt yourself to live in a different country. Our students have shown a lot of grit, determination and resilience in coming here,” Prasad says.
Trained as an engineer, Prasad spent a number of years working for Proctor and Gamble before she decided to pursue something more creative and community-minded.
“I realized that I was never going to be rich, and so the thinking was why not do something really meaningful with my time instead?” Prasad says.
Culinary job training for immigrants and refugees seemed like a unique way to unite her love for cooking, her understanding of the immigrant experience and her desire to do social good.
Cultural interactions and exchanges are most important for Prasad.
“There are not a lot of opportunities to meet someone who’s been in a refugee camp in Burma, and learn from them — not only their recipes but also what life was like before they came to the U.S.,” says Prasad.
Though it’s been nearly two decades since she came to the U.S., Prasad says some of the challenges she experienced while adapting to American culture remain at the heart her decision to start Project Feast.
“Food has been a big part of that connection back to my Indian culture, and so I intuitively know how important it is for refugees and immigrants to maintain that sense of culture through food,” she says.
Cultural Connections And Confections
Project Feast is funded with proceeds from weekly cooking classes and catering events. Catering menus reflect the many cuisines of its students, including Burmese Lahpet thoke (fermented tea leaf salad), Sudanese chicken and rice, and znoud el-sit (a rosewater and cardamom pastry).
At one year and counting, Project Feast staff may still be lean, but its objectives are voracious. Beyond teaching the hard skills of the kitchen, Prasad and her team go a step farther by helping polish resumes, assisting graduates in the job search and, perhaps most importantly, engaging them in conversation to expand language comprehension.
Prasad says an apprenticeship program for recent graduates is in the works, and she hopes to eventually expand Project Feast to a national level.
“We’re trying to provide a platform where our trainees, our graduates, our refugee and immigrant cooks can truly interact with the broader community in a meaningful way,” she says.
Upon receiving Washington state food handlers permits, students learn to prepare simple salads before advancing to moderate Mexican and Italian dishes. In a matter of weeks, they build up their skills to more complex recipes.
Chef Buck's Lessons
Chef Buck is the trainer and kitchen manager at Project Feast. It’s his job to impart his wisdom around the kitchen, which includes skills such as proper knife-handling techniques, kitchen safety and vocabulary.
“It’s basic words that we take for granted that are giving students a harder time. Slang words that we use in the kitchen, things like that,” says the chef who only wished to be identified by his first name.
The chef speaks in a thunderous yet measured tone as he leads the group, step by step, in preparing marinara sauce. The smell of sautéing garlic and onions fills the room as he explains what words like simmer and al dente mean.
Chef Buck spent nine years as an instructor at Fair Start, a culinary job training organization that focuses on helping the homeless develop skills to work in commercial kitchens. He says the cultural and language barriers Project Feast students face are just as disadvantaging as homelessness—but that they can be overcome. He gets a true sense of satisfaction watching his students progress.
“Where it really starts being something for me is when that light goes on in the students’ eyes, and they say, ‘I get it. Now I can do this,’” he says.
Cultural Cuisine Day
By week four, the students’ knife skills show a marked improvement. They move deftly about the kitchen carrying out tasks under the direction of the two Congolese students, Paul Ngali and Simplice Badibanga.
Wearing a vibrant orange and yellow shirt tailored by his wife, Ngali cuts vegetables with a quiet determination. His pace has quickened since last week. He seems more fluid and confident. Badibanga assigns prepping tasks to each of his classmates.
On one of several Cultural Cuisine Days, the group is preparing a meal that includes a few Congolese staples: matembele, or yam leaves, plantains and white fish. As the rich scent of tomatoes, scallions and the basil-like matembele fill the air, Badibanga explains the significance of the dish in broken English that seems to improve with each passing week.
“This is everyday food. Everybody eats matembele in Congo. We all learn to cook matembele in many different ways,” he says.
Cultural Cuisine Days allow students to collectively prepare meals from their home countries before they present final project meals during the graduation ceremony. Beyond giving students a weekly opportunity to cook as a team and assert leadership, these sessions simulate the on-the-job work environment that many will soon encounter.
Once the food is ready, the entire group sits down to eat. The starchy plantain, with its banana essence, is coupled with savory white fish and stewed yam leaves. It’s a meal that allows one to conjure the green valleys and swollen rivers of Central Africa sight unseen.
The group chats about life and customs from their respective countries as they enjoy the unique flavors of Congo. These are the moments when Prasad’s vision of community and cultural exchange through food manifests and becomes vivid.
“You see the expressions on peoples’ faces; they’re like, ‘Yes! People like my food.’ It helps them feel more confident about what they bring to the table,” says Prasad.
Recipes For Big Dreams
Contrary to Congolese practice, both woman and men have helped do the dishes. It’s nearly 2 o’clock, and students are beginning to leave for the afternoon. Zina and Taghreed, both from Iraq, stay behind to chat about what they’ll prepare for their graduation feast.
Taghreed has been in the U.S. for mere months. She came here as a refugee after her husband, employed by an Iraqi media company, fell in danger of political violence. Resettled in the Seattle area, she is optimistic about the opportunities that await her upon completion of Project Feast coursework. She hopes to continue training at a local culinary arts school soon.
Zina, who emigrated to the U.S. from Baghdad many years ago, says she, too, has benefited from the training. Now she dreams big.
“I want to be on the Food Channel,” she says with a grin.