Many cultures, one table: Thanksgiving dinner with refugee chefs and families

Breaking bread at the International Rescue Committee fundraiser to bridge barriers in community

Story and slideshow by DANNY O’MALLEY

The International Rescue Committee hosted Breaking Bread, a pre-holiday feast on November 15, 2017, to bring the greater Salt Lake City community closer together. Guests enjoyed cuisine prepared by chefs with the Spice Kitchen Incubator, a program that helps refugees launch food-service businesses. The Breaking Bread event was held at This Is The Place Heritage Park and drew nearly 250 attendees including refugee families in the community.

Upon arriving, guests were greeted by volunteers who guided them to one of dozens of tables in the high-ceilinged room. A 10-foot tall curved chalkboard wall stood near the podium, covered in decorative art and Polaroid photographs filling the shape of Utah. A flowery inscription reading “This is the place we all call home” emblazoned the top.

An elaborate video setup occupied a side room, where guests recorded live greetings to welcome newcomers to Salt Lake City. Guests and volunteers flowed around the central seating, filling the mountain lodge-style space with a cheerful buzz of conversation between old friends and new acquaintances.

At the bar, local startup Kiitos Brewing donated a selection of beer from its new lineup. The craft beer operation is a newcomer to the Utah brewery scene, but already setting itself apart as a leader in sustainable business and local collaboration. Natalie El-Deiry, deputy director of IRC, said Kiitos donates spent grain from the brewing process to the East African Refugee Goat Farm, a project benefiting refugee farmers on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. The brewery is located in the Granary District south of downtown, and celebrated its grand opening to the public over the weekend of December 1, 2017.

Food from four entrepreneurs took center stage at the feast.

For appetizers, guests enjoyed Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare, courtesy of two sisters. Suha and Mayada run Olives & Thyme together. Originally from Baghdad, they arrived in Utah in 2012 and started cooking with the Spice Kitchen Incubator in 2015. “Americans like to try new things, but there is nothing like what we make — they don’t know Arabic food here,” Mayada said.

The sisters spent hours in the Spice Kitchen the day before the event, rolling dough and wrapping it around spinach and cheese. Savory pastries, falafel sliders and small rice and beef bites called “kubbah” filled guests’ platters during the pre-dinner mingling. The hors d’oeuvres proved too scrumptious to remain for long — the sizeable serving trays were stripped clean by the time dinner was served.

The entree course was served family-style in huge bowls and deep dishes. Each table was assigned a different cuisine — Burmese or Somali.

Haymar, originally from Burma, runs Januhongsar as her catering endeavor, as well as a specialty grocery store called Sonjhae Asian Market. Haymar has lived in Utah since 2008, and has been with Spice Kitchen since in late 2012. For the dinner, she served a chicken and kabocha squash curry with mixed seasonal vegetables over rice. The seasonal squash tasted like a tender semi-sweet pumpkin, and lent a vibrant orange glow to the plate like a late fall sunrise. Haymar’s mouth-watering dishes can be found often through the rotating Spice Kitchen To Go ordering on Facebook.

Najati, from Somalia, lived in the refugee camps in Kenya before coming to Utah in 2008. She learned Swahili recipes cooking with her mother in the camps. “There were no fresh vegetables, but here there is regional organic food I cook with,” she said. Najati dubbed her catering business Namash Swahili Cuisine, and wants to open a food truck or a restaurant someday. “I am used to cooking for 400 or so people. This event I only have maybe 100, much easier.” For the dinner, she served roasted goat from the IRC goat farm, and vegetable curry over Somali-spiced rice with a hot sauce known as “pilipili.”

To top it all off, the dessert course was capped with an intricately-designed cake featuring the event logo, thanks to M Bakeshop. Michaela started M Bakeshop with Spice Kitchen in early 2017, but has been baking her entire life. “I always loved to lick the bowl, ever since I was young. I could live off sweets,” she said. Born in Austria, she has lived in the U.S. since 1986 and Utah since 1995. In the last two years she has started to experiment with a different process that she calls “inside-out cake,” allowing her to bake delicate hand-drawn designs into her cakes. Because of her precision and care on each piece, Spice Kitchen approached her to add an upscale dessert to the event. “I love seeing the reaction of people to my creations,” she said.

Patrick Poulin, executive director of IRC Salt Lake, welcomed attendees and spoke about the importance of sharing cultures between community members.

Natalie El-Deiry presented awards to local groups that were integral in their contribution to the refugee community. One of the awards went to St. Mark’s Family Medicine for its work on the VeggieRx program, a pilot to help refugees address critical nutrition needs.

This is the second year of the Breaking Bread event. Proceeds from ticket sales, as well as additional in-person donations, will help the IRC continue its work and promote new opportunities for refugees. As the Spice Kitchen Incubator continues to aid more local entrepreneurs ply their palate-pleasing trade, the event is sure to grow. Details about next year’s event, as well as the chance to purchase advance tickets, will be available on the IRC’s website or the Facebook page.

“We need to paint a picture of refugee contributions to the community,” said Natalie el-Deiry in a previous interview. This event is just one part of that picture, growing a closer, stronger community through sharing a table and enjoying a meal together.