Inside the Catering Company That's Giving Refugees a New Life in the Kitchen

Eat Offbeat is a New York-based catering kitchen that offers much-needed employment to refugees. We spoke with reporter Sebastien Malo and filmmaker Liz Mermin, who recently visited the kitchen to report on the company and its staff.

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May 15 2016, 4:00pm

Foto via Thompson Reuters Foundation på YouTube

As the global refugee crisis continues to worsen, many of the people who flee their homelands for safety and security abroad find that neither are guaranteed in the US. One New York-based company is trying to change that, however. Eat Offbeat is a catering kitchen that offers much-needed employment to refugees. They not only cook and deliver food around the city, but influence its eclectic menu, which includes offerings like Nepalese momos and Iraqi kibbeh.

We spoke with reporter Sebastien Malo and filmmaker Liz Mermin, who recently visited Eat Offbeat to report on the company and its staff for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Liz and Sebastien. How did you first learn about Eat Offbeat? Liz Mermin: From our dogged and resourceful New York reporter, Sebastien.

Sebastian Malo: I was looking for ways in which refugees in the United States were being valued for what they bring to this country, rather than perceived as a burden. When a friend told me about Eat Offbeat, the concept immediately caught my attention—people from across the world who find a way to connect through cooking? I was hooked.

What attracted you to Eat Offbeat? Why did you find its story compelling? LM: It's really important to tell stories that show what is true to the experience of the vast majority of refugees: they face tremendous challenges re-inventing their lives in a foreign country, in a foreign language, far from their families, with practically no official support, and most of them just want to support themselves and their families and live normal lives. Eat Offbeat takes something that makes refugees different and turns it into a strength. Spending time with the chefs, it's impossible to see them as scary or threatening in any way. And in these days of fusion cuisine, combining Iraqi and Nepalese and Ethiopian cuisine is a brilliant idea.

SM: I find that immigrants, across the world, tend to be undervalued for what they bring. It's an understandable reaction at times—there's something lost in translation. As a foreigner myself and the son of an immigrant—I don't come from that far but I'm French Canadian, my mom is Peruvian - I feel particularly sensitive to that reality. In some ways I look at Eat Offbeat as a classic American underdog story: destitute people flee persecution or war, and against all odds, using the skills they bring with them, they make it.

Did Eat Offbeat's founders or workers talk about encountering any hostility since the company launched? SM: I think for the most part Eat Offbeat has been celebrated. My understanding is that, unfortunately, they've also received a handful of nasty emails.

Did you encounter any challenges while reporting on the story? Were refugees reticent to speak? LM: Some of them were, and they didn't want to give us details about why and how they had left their home countries, or the family members who have remained behind. This is always a challenge telling refugee stories: You want to give enough detail to make people believe in and care about them, but you don't want to get anyone in trouble. That's why a story like this is a great opportunity to talk to refugees about something other than their struggles, but hopefully you get some of that across at the same time.

SM: Language was a bit of a challenge. One of the employees we interviewed spoke Arabic and just a little English. The videographer and I don't speak Arabic, so we used a translator in post-production.

What was the most touching moment you had while reporting on Eat Offbeat and speaking to the refugees there? LM: I was touched by how both women in the film felt at home in New York, reminding me what a great city it is.

SM: I was touched at the immense pride the employees took in their labor. And when I tasted the food, I thought, Thank God for this day of reporting.

Social enterprises like Eat Offbeat and Hot Bread Kitchen are growing in NYC and elsewhere in the US. Why do you think this important at this point in history? LM: Anything that allows refugees to support themselves and integrate, and allows ordinary people to know them personally, is important right now in a time of rising xenophobia and massive displacement of people.

SM: It offers an alternative narrative at a time of heightened xenophobia. It doesn't mean the current historic refugee crisis doesn't present challenges. But discussing the flip side of a more diverse society, the potential benefits, is a conversation that needs to be had as well. One story can't change the tone of the debate, but a slew of them hopefully can contribute to achieving that.

How was the food? LM: Excellent.

SM: My greatest regret is that you haven't tasted their cauliflower Manchurian yet.

Thanks for speaking with us.