Oral Tradition

Through ‘Global Kitchen,’ immigrants teach New Yorkers the recipes they grew up on.

Taking a cooking class with Global Kitchen will do more than teach you how to make the kind of dishes that usually require a schlep to Richmond Hill, like Guyanese cassava pone and Ethiopian miser wot.

By hiring immigrant cooks to teach one-night classes in the traditional recipes of their home countries, this year-old, crowd-funded startup connects curious New Yorkers with instructors knowledgeable in cuisines rarely in the spotlight.

Beyond making and eating a deliciously authentic meal, participants get a sense of how and why those dishes came to be, and what life is like in the countries where they originated.

Moreover, each class helps a new American entrepreneur expand his or her catering/food truck/baking business in this hypercompetitive city. Which is why it’s not a stretch to call altruism the main ingredient in Global Kitchen.

Judging by a Guyanese session I sat in on with a half-dozen young urban professionals in Hell’s Kitchen, the classes are transporting. The demo kitchen filled with aromas of chicken curry simmering and rotis baking as the teacher interwove recipe instructions with recollections of her home country, where her family had coconut trees and everyone had a chicken coop, where no one owned refrigerators and her mother would go to the market every midday to buy eggplant and long beans and squash.

And at the end, all the students gathered around a table to share what she and they had made, finishing with that cassava-coconut pone, more black-peppery than sweet and with a texture one attendee compared to a mochi brownie—an indicator of the savvy of both teacher and student.

Seeing these recipes prepared inches away, with running commentary, was like the difference between flipping open a musty old Time-Life Foods of the World and showing up at Madhur Jaffrey’s house while she’s making dinner.

“If you’re not splattered with oil,” students were advised as they clustered around the stove to watch as garlic sizzled, “you’re not close enough.”

Spices were passed around to sniff, roti dough to touch. The ambience was more party-with-friends than straight class: Attendees are invited to bring beer and wine to drink as they learn and cook.

Ryan Brown, one of the co-founders, did community organizing with food in Chicago, setting up CSAs and gardens and cooking meals for the homeless. Then, while studying social entrepreneurism at NYU’s business school, he pitched the idea of immigrant-led cooking classes and developed a business plan. Brown and his partner got free accounting help, raised money on RocketHub and staged their first class in July 2012, led by Veda Sukhu, a Guyanese baker who has her own custom cake business, works at Hot Bread Kitchen and sells fragrant garam masala and other spice blends at the Queens County Market.

Classes, usually with about 12 attendees paying $70 apiece, are held either in the supremely accommodating rented demo kitchen in Hell’s Kitchen or in a doughnut shop kitchen in Bushwick (a balancing act, since it’s vegan). “We want you to feel like you’re in [the cook’s] home,” Brown says. “If you want to help, you can chop. If you just want to drink wine or if you just want to take in stories, you can do that. It’s informal and fun.”

With a goal of offering one class a week, Global Kitchen recently hired a new team member to recruit more instructors—which is tricky business. The easy element is finding immigrants with expertise in a particular cuisine. They also need to be established in the food world in some way, both so that they’re up to code on health regulations and so that their own enterprises can benefit from the exposure. But they also need fluent, engaging English so they can explain both their cooking and their culture—immigrant food usually communicates more clearly than cooks do. So far, beyond Guyanese and Ethiopian, Global Kitchen has organized classes in Malaysian, Egyptian, Senegalese and French-Jewish cooking, but it has its eye on Salvadoran, taught by someone from the Red Hook ball fields.

“You have to have cuisines that are unique,” Brown says, “but that people will sign up for.”

Their star teacher is Sukhu, who had previously taught only her children and grandchildren how to cook. “It’s her kitchen” when she starts searing chicken thighs and showing off her homegrown wiri-wiri peppers (similar to Scotch bonnets).

She also meets another Global Kitchen objective, according to Leah Selim, co-founder and director of marketing and communications: preserving and sharing stories and recipes.

“One goal is to help preserve cultures that are dying out through second and third generations as people become acculturated. We make sure recipes get passed along in a way that someone can follow, on our website, so people not in New York can have them.”

Global Kitchen is looking to expand beyond regularly scheduled classes, by offering team-building sessions for corporations as well as private parties—Sukhu recently taught a session at a bachelorette party in Brooklyn, all the guests with aprons over their festive dresses. At this point, though, Brown and Selim are both keeping their day jobs, he at a consulting firm in Midtown and she at the U.N. (Their “conference room” is a beer joint on East 38th Street.)

Other regular instructors include Isabelle Lapin, who teaches French-Jewish cooking as a sideline from her vegan and gluten-free baking business; Mohan Kulasingam, a trained chef and yoga instructor who focuses on his native Malaysian food; and Nafissa Camara, who markets a line of condiments based on her Senegalese heritage.

With such esoteric cuisines, the founders say, Global Kitchen could only work in a melting pot like New York—which boasts both a thriving immigrant population and serious eaters interested in food and culture.

But while Global Kitchen benefits many, Brown is modest: “Very selfishly, I wanted to learn different cuisines,” he says. “My wife and I love to travel and try new food—we wanted to learn from people who’ve been cooking this food their whole lives.”

Go behind-the-scenes at Global Kitchen with our video.

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Regina Schrambling is a longtime food writer who left an editing job at the NYT to train at the New York Restaurant School, freelanced for magazines for 15 years, returned to the NYT for 46 months as deputy editor of the Dining section and then happily returned to freelancing. Her cat eats extremely well.