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In a Long Island kitchen, refugees offer the flavors of their native lands

November 24, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
New York City is known for the stunning variety of ethnic cuisines available on its street corners, and one local entrepreneur is looking to expand that breadth even further -- by leveraging the city’s most recent arrivals. William Brangham reports from a Long Island kitchen where refugees prepare meals using the flavors of their native lands and deliver them to Big Apple foodies.

JOHN YANG: And now, a second helping of our food theme.  At a part of the country where ethnic cuisine can be found on nearly every street corner, one entrepreneur is relying on refugees to bring their home cooking to New York City foodies.
William Brangham is back with a visit to a Long Island kitchen,
WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  It`s business as usual inside the kitchen of Eat Offbeat — a New York City catering company.  Recipes, prepared with precision slicing and dicing, are cooked to perfection.  But the chefs here all have one thing in common: they`re refugees, and none of them, until recently, had any formal culinary training
MANAL KAHI, Founder, Eat Offbeat:  Today, we have chefs from Syria, Iraq, Nepal, Eritrea, the Ivory Coast, Guinea-Conakry.  They`re all working each on their own dish and we have a few deliveries happening this afternoon.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Manal Kahi created Eat Offbeat with her brother Wissam last year.  The idea came to them a few years before, after Kahi kept trying different brands of American made hummus and nothing measured up to her grandmother`s recipe.
MANAL KAHI: I had recently moved to the U.S. from Lebanon and I kind of missed my home.  In the midst of the refugee crisis back in Lebanon, our grandmother happens to be from Aleppo, from Syria, originally.  It was relatively natural for us to say if you want someone as talented as our grandmother to make hummus for New Yorkers, maybe we should see the refugees coming from Syria.  We probably would find someone who`s just like her.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That idea soon grew beyond just Syrians — Kahi believed that talented home cooks from across the globe could offer New Yorkers unique flavors, prepared in traditional ways.
MANAL KAHI: Cuisines like Iraqi food, Syrian, Nepali, Eritrean, it`s not really cuisines that you can find around every corner even here in New York, as cosmopolitan as it can be.  When we say authentic, it`s not necessarily the way it`s made in that country or it`s been made in that country hundred years ago.  It`s the way they make it at home, the way they eat it with their families.  That`s the way we`re selling it.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Eat Offbeat partners with the International Rescue Committee to find their chefs, and twelve of them are now employed with the company.
Because it`s their first time working in a professional kitchen, they need a bit of training, and so, the culinary process is overseen by head chef Juan Suarez De Lezo.  He`s worked at some of the top restaurants in both Spain and the U.S.
JUAN SUAREZ DE LEZO, Chief Culinary Officer, Eat Offbeat:  I`m teaching them how to move in a professional kitchen, how to work, how to organize, how to balance flavors, because at the end, they`ve been cooking always for their families which is amazing, but in this case, now they`re cooking for New Yorkers.  So, they need to adapt those flavors in somehow for the city.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For Rachana Rimal, a Nepalese chef, she`s been preparing a dish that is generally served at special occasions in her country.
RACHANA RIMAL, Chef, Eat Offbeat:  This is a chicken ball, actually.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Like a meatball?
RACHANA RIMAL: Like a meatball but I put a lot of spices on it, like onions and my ingredients here, culmi, mustard.  I put everything here.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Rimal`s daughter Satakshi came to the U.S. with her a few years ago when they fled Nepal as a family.  She works as the kitchen manager for Eat Offbeat.  With a meticulous eye, she oversees deliveries, portion sizes, and, for the first time in her life, keeping her own mom in line.
SATAKSHI RIMAL, Kitchen Manager, Eat Offbeat:  I get to boss her around here and she gets to boss me around at home.  So, I think we even each other out pretty well.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Larry Younck is a senior refugee resettlement officer for the United Nations in Washington, D.C.  Younck says cooking is often a perfect job for refugees when they first arrive to the United States.
LARRY YOUNCK, Senior Refugee Resettlement Officer, United Nations:  Refugees are expected to be self-supporting very quickly, a few months after arriving here, and to find jobs in the U.S. and that can be a challenge when you don`t speak English or you speak limited English and your job skills maybe are hard to transfer from your home country.  But when it comes to food, food communicates regardless of whether you can speak English or not.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Younck also believes more companies should follow Eat Offbeat`s lead when it comes to hiring refugees.
LARRY YOUNCK: What we see is refugees in general in a lot of walks of life are much more entrepreneurial than typically Americans are because, again, they`ve taken risks.  They know what it is to try something and maybe you succeed and maybe you don`t.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Manal Kahi wants her company to go further, not just to offer jobs, but to help change the perception of refugees as just being vulnerable, needy people.
MANAL KAHI: That`s exactly what they`re trying to prove wrong.  In our opinion, refugees are very skilled.  They bring with them a lot of skills, a lot of talent, a lot of heritage that they can share with their host communities.  And given the right opportunity, the right space, they have a lot to contribute for the local economy, and for the local communities.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And for employees like Satakshi Rimal, she says the kitchen has become a place where chefs do much more than simply cook.
SATAKSHI RIMAL: The best I could describe is it`s a second home to everybody.  It`s like a bunch of aunts coming in, cooking at a common kitchen.  And, you know, it`s like joint family so you have everything that happens in a household.  There`s screaming, there`s, “hey, don`t put too much of this.  Don`t put so much of it.”  Even if that`s not their dish.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Eat Offbeat mainly caters to large groups, but is hoping to expand into a delivery service in the coming months.  And as for the hummus — Kahi says her company`s recipe would make grandma proud.
Mmm, that is great.
For the “PBS NewsHour”, I`m William Brangham in New York.