Gastrodiplomacy Takes Root in New York City

connecting to culture through cuisine

By Wendy Wong

Onex

Jeanette Chawki teaches a Lebanese cooking class for League of Kitchens. [Photograph by Bethany Wong]

In a Bay Ridge apartment, the living room coffee table is laden with savory treats like spinach pie and labneh (a strained homemade yogurt spread served with cucumbers and grape tomatoes). But this isn’t my aunt and uncle’s house, or a friend’s dinner party. It’s the home of Jeanette Chawki, a Lebanese cooking instructor for League of Kitchens, and I, along with four others, am her student.

Chawki grew up in Lebanon, but in 2006 she and her family came to the U.S. The walls of her home are filled with family pictures and her kids’ drawings. It feels as if we are somewhere cozy and familiar, rather than meeting for the first time.

As we cook, Chawki tells us how she longed to come here to escape fighting and persecution in Lebanon. And she shares her memories from home—like how her father would toss orange peels in the fireplace to make their house smell like citrus.

This cooking workshop is one of many recent efforts toward gastrodiplomacy—a term coined by Paul Rockower, executive director of Levantine Public Diplomacy, in reference to the way nations and ethnic groups communicate their culture through their food traditions.

“Food is something so uniquely tied to our sense of nostalgia, of identity,” he says. “It’s a more emotional…connection that you can make with foreign people, foreign publics, so that they can understand your culture better.”

Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery teaches a master class for local chefs in Turkmenistan, before cooking and serving Thanksgiving dinner for the United States Embassy and Turkmen dignitaries. [Photographs by the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan]

Rockower travels with U.S. embassies and meets with embassies abroad, creating programs that introduce American music and food to countries of conflict and finding new ways for other countries to share their food cultures with Americans.

Back in September 2012 the U.S. launched a formal program called the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. As part of this, American chefs are stationed with U.S. embassies in different countries, where they cook various styles of American cuisine and help people in other nations understand the nuances of “American food” beyond hamburgers and pizza.

One of Rockower’s favorite spots for varied cuisines and dining options is New York City, a hub of international diversity.

“I’ll go foraging up in Queens and get Nepalese food, and then I’ll go with my buddy to get some café con leche or Hawaiian pastries… and I would’ve not walked more than five blocks,” says Rockower. “New York is such a haven for gastrodiplomacy.”

Jeff Orlick, also known as the Queens Qustodian (full disclosure: he’s also a Real Cheap Eats contributor), shares Rockower’s love for the borough’s diverse food offerings.

“The cultures coming through keep changing,” says Orlick, a Jackson Heights resident. “As someone who has taste ADD, this satisfies me.”

The Ambassador Plates insignia on display at a Nepali restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens. [Photograph by Bradley Hawks].

Orlick created the Ambassador Program to share his social and culinary ideas with others. He started with dinners in 2010, where an "Ambassador," someone who grew up immersed in another culture, orders their dream meal at a restaurant they love and explains the dishes to a group of people gathered by Orlick. The guests then pay for the Ambassador’s portion.

Ambassador Plates is the latest installment of this program. It’s a simpler, more independent idea—anyone can visit a participating restaurant, point to the Ambassador sticker, pay $10 to $20, and let the chefs select “traditional” dishes for their meal.

Little Tibet, a restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, participates in the program. Co-owners Tenzin Choenyi and Lobsang Choephel took over in 2013 and were looking for a way to help increase their business.

Their intention was to cater to the neighborhood’s large South Asian community, including many Tibetans. But Orlick came into the restaurant and introduced them to the Ambassador Plates idea. He said many non-Tibetans were curious to try real Tibetan food, and it would be a good idea if the two served “traditional” dishes that non-Tibetans should try in order to get a better sense of Tibetan cooking.

Preparing momos for an Ambassador Plate special. [Photograph by Bradley Hawks].

“When he showed so much excitement about his program, we thought, ‘This is only for our good,’” says Choenyi. “There was no reason to be reluctant.”

Orlick hopes to expand Ambassador Plates to other neighborhoods and cities in order to get more local restaurants to connect to local residents and adventurous tourists. Among Orlick’s other plans are a series of publications that help readers understand different cultures through food and world issues, with a coupon page for local restaurants.

Statistics show that immigrant-owned businesses make significant contributions to the economy. In 2008, for instance, immigrant entrepreneurs started 17 percent of all new businesses in the U.S. and represented 13 percent of all business owners, according to the Small Business Administration.

Hot Bread Kitchen, a non-profit social enterprise that started in the same year, aims to increase these percentages by creating opportunities for jobs in the food industry for low-income citizens, particularly immigrant women and minorities.

The organization is based in La Marqueta, a shared retail space and kitchen incubator in Harlem, and it comprises two programs. At Project Launch, immigrant and low-income women enter a training program where they improve their baking skills, then make and sell multi-ethnic breads like Moroccan m'smen and Persian nan-e qandi. The money from sales pays for English classes, computer workshops, and other training for the women that helps them get jobs in the food industry.

Bakers in residence at Hot Bread Kitchen, a program operating out of La Marqueta in Harlem. [Photograph by Hot Bread Kitchen].

The other program, HBK Incubates, is open to all food entrepreneurs (especially low-income immigrants) aspiring to run their own food businesses. Those who are accepted to the incubator learn how to develop their businesses and keep them profitable. After they “graduate” from the program and launch their businesses, they can still rent space in the incubator for their cooking operations.

Veda Sukhu,  originally from Guyana, was one of the first entrepreneurs chosen for HBK Incubates. Sukhu occasionally sells pastries—a mix of Guyanese and British influence—along with curries and roti, though her passion lies in baking cakes. As part of Hot Bread Kitchen’s incubator program she was assigned a professional coach, who visited her once a month and helped to introduce Sukhu to several open-air markets, where she could sell her baked goods.

“I learned a lot about how to manage [my] business and the pricing and all those things,” Sukhu says.

“We’re really committed to providing immigrant women and minorities with the opportunity to build a strong career and provide for their families and access a network they wouldn’t necessarily have without us,” says Grace Moore, a spokesperson for Hot Bread Kitchen.

Lebanese labneh with cucumbers, prepared at a League of Kitchens cooking class. [Photograph by Bethany Wong]

In the past few years, many other independent organizations and businesses have taken up the gastrodiplomacy mission. In New York, Global Kitchen offered cooking classes taught by professional immigrant cooks, though it shuttered this past June. Conflict Kitchen, a takeout spot in Pittsburgh, serves the cuisines of countries that are in conflict with the U.S. (Venezuelan arepas and Iran’s kubideh have been on the menu.) In Seattle, Project Feast conducts immigrant-taught cooking classes and hosts job training programs to help immigrant and refugee cooks integrate into the food industry.

A newer arrival, League of Kitchens, launched this past February in New York. The organization offers cooking workshops covering several international cuisines hosted in immigrant instructors’ homes.

League of Kitchens’ founder Lisa Gross wanted to help her family cook when was younger, but her Korean grandmother told her and her mother to focus on their studies. After college Gross started cooking and wanted to learn how to make Korean food, but her grandmother had passed away.

“I thought, ‘I couldn’t cook with my Korean grandmother, but wouldn’t it be great if there were ‘grandmothers’ from all over the world who you could cook with and learn in their kitchen?’” Gross says.

She reached out to at least 150 organizations in search of instructors, ranging from refugee organizations to cultural community service centers. None of the instructors are food industry professionals. What they do have is years of family or self-taught cooking experience—and intimate knowledge of their home cultures.

“There’s this real insight into the contemporary immigrant experience right now in New York City,” says Gross. “What are people’s lives like now, what have been their challenges, what are the things they really love about being here? There’s so much diversity and complexity in the immigrant experience that I’m really interested in.”

Gross recruited Yamini Joshi, League of Kitchens’ Indian cooking instructor, through Émigré Gourmet, a cooking collective of immigrant women that’s part of Sunset Park’s Center for Family Life.

Born and raised in Mumbai, Joshi learned how to make everyday Indian dishes from her mother. From her father she learned special dishes, like sambhariya (eggplants, potatoes, shallots and tomatoes stuffed with spices and seasonings, cilantro and toasted chickpea flour), which she teaches in one of her workshops.

Joshi works part-time at a jewelry store and appreciates the supplementary income she earns from her cooking classes. She also enjoys meeting new people and being exposed to different communities.

“Before we only welcomed our guests who we know [into our home],” Joshi says. “But this is like you’re welcoming them as your guests, your family.”