'Tables Without Borders' Opens Restaurant Kitchens To Refugee Chefs
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A new collaboration with professional chefs in Washington, D.C., is giving five refugees an opportunity to tell the stories of their home countries through food. It's part of an inaugural dinner series called Tables Without Borders, where some of D.C.'s best restaurants served a special menu cooked by refugee chefs from places like El Salvador, Afghanistan and Syria. NPR's Sophia Alvarez Boyd went to see one of the meals come together.
SOPHIA ALVAREZ BOYD, BYLINE: Little Sesame is a Middle Eastern restaurant in D.C. best known for its hummus. And that is definitely on the menu tonight. But chefs Nick Wiseman and Ronan Tenne are taking orders from someone else - a Syrian chef named Qamar Bouteh. She's just 26 years old, a petite woman in a sky-blue hijab. And she's in charge of everything from how to cut the cabbage...
NICK WISEMAN: Qamar, how do you want this cabbage? Just thin?
QAMAR BOUTEH: Yeah, half and then cut it like...
ALVAREZ BOYD: ...To putting the beef and lamb mixture on skewers.
BOUTEH: So when you need to make it, you need to put all this together. It's like...
ALVAREZ BOYD: Bouteh has never cooked with a team of professional chefs before. She usually cooks out of her home kitchen in Chevy Chase, Md., where she runs a small catering business. That started through word of mouth three years ago when she came to the United States from Syria.
BOUTEH: Actually, when I was in Syria, no, I didn't do this. I just cooked to my family (laughter). But when I come to United States, so the people taste my food, and they like it. And they say, OK, can you cook for me? OK (laughter).
ALVAREZ BOYD: Tonight is her chance to bring part of her home to the plates of about 50 people. Dinner is served family style. And eager diners introduce themselves and chat as they pass around traditional Syrian dishes.
BOUTEH: Hi. How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The appetizer is beautiful and delicious.
ALVAREZ BOYD: There's fattoush, a fresh salad of tomatoes and cucumbers and a plate of kapsa, piled high with chicken, eggplant and spiced basmati rice. Bouteh is from Homs, Syria. She was forced to flee in 2012 after a bomb hit the roof of her apartment building, breaking the windows while she was at home with her three-month-old son and 2-year-old daughter. She came to this country in 2016 before the U.S. dramatically restricted its refugee intake.
RONNAN TENNE: I'm very happy to work with Qamar. She's awesome. She keeps her attitude always happy with a smile, doesn't get stressed.
ALVAREZ BOYD: That's chef Ronan Tenne of Little Sesame. This dinner has been especially nostalgic for him. He grew up in Israel, so he's familiar with a variety of Middle Eastern flavors. And he says working with someone from the region is refreshing.
TENNE: Every time I have an opportunity to work or learn with those people, I always enjoy it a lot. You know, like, I can't go to their country and feel their culture. So being able to connect with them over here, especially around food - that's, like, such a great feeling, you know what I mean?
ALVAREZ BOYD: To get that nostalgic taste, Bouteh has to go the extra mile to find the right ingredients. She makes a special trip half an hour away to buy the proper spices for her basmati rice and kabob meat. And there was only one store in the area that had fresh dough for her kanafah - a thin, noodle-like pastry filled with cheese and brushed with rose syrup. And it's the desserts that are the star of the show.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you. Oh, wow.
ALVAREZ BOYD: Bouteh steps out from the kitchen, serving tiers of baklava, sesame seed cookies and sticky semolina cake. She says she was nervous about what people would think about her food. So when everyone compliments her, she can't stop smiling.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I have had baklava every single year for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is the best baklava I have ever had.
BOUTEH: Oh, I am happy to hear that. Thank you so much.
ALVAREZ BOYD: While diners walk away with a full stomach and new craving for Syrian food, Bouteh is thinking about what's next for her.
BOUTEH: Do you know, I see the people - it's, like, so happy, so I think they will come back (laughter).
ALVAREZ BOYD: Now Qamar Bouteh says she's thinking about opening her own Arab restaurant.
Sophia Alvarez Boyd, NPR News.
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