Imagine building a business like Manal Kahi’s. In 2013, when she arrived in New York at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, she noticed her new home was lacking good hummus (like the kind her grandmother, a native of Aleppo, would make). Seeking out partnership with International Rescue Committee, she established Eat Offbeat, a catering company staffed by global refugees—making the authentic foods of their homelands—and amassed a substantial client list that included banks, universities, and tech firms like Airbnb. “We served casual team meetings for 10 people and gala dinners for 1000,” she says. Now imagine a global pandemic trying to take all of that away.
So Kahi and her team evolved, and now Eat Offbeat delivers boxes of fresh prepared food to adventurous diners around New York City. “It’s primarily refugees on the team,” Kahi says. “They’ve had to start their lives over three or four times, so restarting a business from scratch wasn’t as challenging for us as one would think.” She even saw a silver lining: “We pivoted to a model that’s even more scalable.” A box might arrive filled with eggplant curry by Chef Shanthini of Sri Lanka and shish taouk by Chef Diaa of Syria (there’s a vegan box, as well as gluten- and dairy-free options). But the boxes also carry Eat Offbeat’s ethos: They create quality jobs for refugees, build bridges between peoples, and change the narrative around refugees. “Our chefs are helping New York discover something new, something different,” says Kahi.
This spring, Eat Offbeat launches its first cookbook, The Kitchen Without Borders, so anyone can make Senegalese Poulet Yassa or Venezuelan Cachapas for themselves. The company now offers gift boxes that can be shipped anywhere in the United States, and they’ll soon have a pantry box of single-sourced spices so any kitchen can become an international one. For Eat Offbeat, this is a business, but also a social mission. “I want it to spread all over,” Kahi says. “I want people to eat our food or cook from our book and say, ‘Wow, we’re lucky these refugees settled close to us because they’re adding value to our life. It’s good we’re welcoming to them.’ ”
Excerpted from The Kitchen Without Borders by the Eat Offbeat chefs. Workman Publishing © 2021.
This article originally appeared in our Summer 2021 issue. Get the magazine here.