How to Get Authentic Iraqi Food Cooked By a Refugee Delivered to Your Door
The story of Eat Offbeat begins with hummus. CEO and cofounder Manal Kahi, who moved to New York from Lebanon to attend graduate school at Columbia University, couldn’t find hummus that compared to her Syrian grandmother’s recipe. Nothing was smooth enough or creamy enough.
What’s the secret to good hummus? “There are a lot of little tricks in every family,” Kahi told TakePart, including blending the chickpeas while they’re hot and tossing an ice cube into the mix. But the main difference is simple: “It’s probably the fact that it’s homemade,” she said.
That distinguishing characteristic launched the social-impact-driven meal delivery service Eat Offbeat, which Kahi cofounded with her brother Wissam. Partnering with The International Rescue Committee, they currently employ chef Nidaa Al Janabi from Iraq, chef Rachana Rimal from Nepal, and chef Mitslal Tedla from Eritrea, who create meals delivered to groups at a starting rate of $20 per person, including dishes such as fried cauliflower served with sweet chili sauce and lentils slow-cooked with Berbere spices.
The family recipes are humble and homey, but their pedigree is Michelin-starred. At the head of the culinary program is chef Juan Suarez de Lezo, formerly of Per Se and El Bulli, whose role is not to intercede but advance—training the cooks in technique and hygiene standards so they can translate their recipes to a commercial scale.
While providing New Yorkers with an experience akin to dining in a local’s home—like Eat With a Local or Meal Sharing, minus the passport—Eat Offbeat is trying to change the narrative around the refugee experience.
“The whole thing is built on social impact,” Kahi said. “If we remove that, we’re just a restaurant or another meal delivery service.”
Ongoing war in Syria has led to the displacement of more than 4.5 million people, of which the United States has accepted 2,647. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats blocked legislation that would have required each Syrian and Iraqi refugee to earn certification from the secretary of Homeland Security, the FBI director, and the national intelligence director saying he or she posed no security threat before being admitted into the U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., called the proposed approval process “physically impossible,” and President Obama had vowed to veto the legislation if passed. But even when refugees are not viewed as a threat, they are still perceived as a burden.
“Most stories you hear about refugees are negative, about how much they’re destroying our economy, that they don’t have anything to contribute, that we are offering everything to them. This is what we want to change,” Kahi said. “Refugees are among the most entrepreneurial. The very fact that they left their country shows that. We want to showcase that they can bring in a lot of value.”
Eat Offbeat joins the growing cadre of food businesses with a social justice component, including New York’s Hot Bread Kitchen, which trains low-income, minority, and immigrant women to launch culinary careers and food businesses, and Drive Change, a food truck that hires and teaches formerly incarcerated youths. In the booming meal-delivery space specifically, which start-ups such as Munchery and even the ride-sharing stalwart Uber are getting in on, Eat Offbeat is in good company. In Oakland, California, The Town Kitchen’s staff of low-income teenagers cook and deliver meals to businesses while receiving culinary training and the opportunity for college credit. Less hands-on is mobile food delivery app Sharebite, which donates 2 percent of every transaction to the charity of each customer’s choice.
But no one is doing quite what Eat Offbeat is. Future plans include a mobile app and hiring more refugees who have settled in places beyond New York.
“Our dream is to replicate the model in cities with a lot of refugees where there’s a also a lot of demand, where there’s a lot of what we call ‘adventurous eaters’—people who are curious about other cuisines and would like to discover that,” Kahi said.
“We never say we’re helping refugees,” she added. “Rather, we’re helping New Yorkers discover something new, off the beaten path, that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to discover otherwise. Here, we’re just bringing it to their home.”