How a local nonprofit — now with chef Lisa Nakamura — gives newcomers to our country support, education and hands-on experience in the restaurant industry.
Running a restaurant is hard work — very hard. And after 20-plus years in the industry, Lisa Nakamura says, “I used to get this sense when I was cooking: What good am I doing? Is it changing anyone’s world? I know that sounds so dramatic, but is it actually affecting anyone?”
She’d gone from the French Laundry to The Herbfarm, cooking in New Orleans during Katrina, Seoul, Munich and beyond. At the end of November, she closed her Seattle restaurant Gnocchi Bar to become the chef instructor for Project Feast, a tiny, local nonprofit that seeks to empower refugee and immigrant cooks through job training.
Project Feast’s Culinary Apprenticeship Program is an intensive one — nine to five, five days a week, for four months — for just four apprentices, who receive a nominal scholarship to help cover child care, transportation and such. As you’re reading this, Nakamura and her cohort are preparing for the debut of Ubuntu Street Cafe, an open-to-the-public Kent restaurant giving the apprentices hands-on experience in “catering, marketing, recipe development, how we go about planning a menu — all the things that maybe if you’re just a layperson you’ve never really thought about,” Nakamura says. “I mean, I learned the hard way!” she laughs. “So I’m hoping maybe I can smooth out the path a little bit.”
Ubuntu is the African concept of togetherness, the belief in an interconnected bond among us all. The first few weeks for the new Project Feast apprentices included bonding outings to the Pike Place Market, where they were impressed with how family-driven it remains, and to Fran’s, where they were impressed with the chocolates. Nakamura’s been impressed, she says, with how intent the apprentices are on learning. “There’s an extra degree of earnestness that’s sometimes hard to find in people who have grown up and lived in America, because [the apprentices] understand more intensely what it is they’re working towards,” Nakamura observes. “It’s very eye-opening, and it’s also very humbling. I feel a great responsibility.
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“In light of everything that’s been going on,” she continues, meaning President Trump’s attempts to radically alter U.S. immigration policy, “it helps me feel not quite so helpless, and like maybe in some small way we’re actually trying to make a positive difference for people.”
On a Project Feast field-trip lunch at Assimba Ethiopian Cuisine, apprentice Iryna Mykhalchuk, originally from Ukraine, says she’d like to run her own bakery someday. Bebe Renzaho, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, wants to open the first restaurant in Seattle showcasing “my traditional food,” and she’s got a name picked out: Umoja, meaning “together.” Tenaye Adem, from Ethiopia, would like to run a restaurant “like this,” she says gesturing to the surroundings, “but better!” she adds slyly.
Assimba’s owner, the voluble, good-humored Messeret Habeti, comes out to the table too late to debate that but shares no-holds-barred stories of her experience as an immigrant chef-entrepreneur. She says her Central District restaurant, on East Cherry Street near Martin Luther King Jr. Way, was the first one in the area when it opened almost 28 years ago. Her original business partner tried to rip her off, not knowing she was doing her own bookkeeping, and the neighborhood didn’t exactly embrace Ethiopian food with open arms. “It’s new for them,” Habeti says. “They don’t like the taste, they don’t like the smell — they’d cover their mouth, they wouldn’t even want to pass by the restaurant.” Wasn’t that insulting? “I don’t feel it,” she says, “because I’ll fight through it. It’s me who’s come to their area … after all, it’s all new things for them.”
Back at the beginning, she tells the Project Feast group, a gang member came in to try to extort money from her. She kicked him in the crotch so hard, she says jubilantly, “He fell down, and he couldn’t get up!” Everyone laughs. Then she brought him a bag of ice, made him some food and created peace. (When she sees him on the street, he still covers his crotch with one hand and waves with the other.)
Asked for more specific advice, Habeti talks about having passion, keeping recipes consistent, the importance of cleanliness (“Bad news travels fast”), using Facebook, creating options for those who are vegan or gluten-free. Called a role model, she laughingly agrees: “For the area — for everybody, actually!”
Habeti gives everyone a tour of the kitchen, lights some frankincense incense, and, with some apprentice assistance, performs the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony amid clouds of fragrant smoke. Away from the group, she says she hasn’t ever been scared running her place. She’s seen worse: Back in Ethiopia, when she was 13, her 17-year-old brother was killed in front of her.
Habeti objects to some of President Trump’s immigration moves. “When you are a green card holder, your status has been checked … So he should not detain them,” she says. “Just because you are Muslim, it’s not going to make you a terrorist … Bad people are bad people, in every religion, in every country.” But, she asserts, “Other than that, I say you have to give him a chance. Because you never know, he might be good after all … the safety of this country is number one.”
At the end of the outing, Lisa Nakamura notes that she knows people who are here legally who’re worried about getting deported. She talks about how her own family escaped internment in World War II only because they were in Hawaii, where there were too many Japanese people to be put away. She is, she says, “a little freaked out. But I’m hoping that common sense will prevail. And that there’s enough of a groundswell of Americans of either side — blue or red, I don’t care — that say, ‘You know what? This is not who we as a nation are.”
Meanwhile, there’s work to be done in Kent, readying Ubuntu Street Cafe. Dishes developed with the apprentices will be served: Burmese curry, Eritrean ades, Iraqi fatoush. They’re hoping to be ready to open, together, by Valentine’s Day.