Bringing an International Feast Home
a Tukwila nonprofit empowers
immigrants with culinary know-how
BY CHELSEA LIN
With a single mom at work and a grandmother missing both her legs, Susana Ramirez was seven years old when she was left in charge of caring for her younger siblings in Mexico City. Part of that responsibility was learning to cook, something she did begrudgingly. “My grandpa had to make a kind of ladder/stool so I would be tall enough to stir the pans,” she says, laughing.
Now, nearly 35 years later, Ramirez’s family recipes run through her veins. She came to the U.S. in 1999 with the hope of a better future for her own kids, and it was her eldest daughter who urged the passionate home cook to sign up for a course in commercial kitchen basics at Tukwila’s Project Feast, a nonprofit organization offering kitchen job training for immigrants and refugees. Ramirez registered in the fall of 2014—with little confidence in her English abilities and no driver’s license— and has not looked back. “I was really nervous, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “This is my passion. I love it.”
Ramirez’s story is not outside the norm for Project Feast, which takes immigrants with talent and love for cooking and helps them build the skills and confidence needed to find a job in a professional kitchen. In 2013 alone, nearly 70,000 refugees resettled in the U.S.—2,414 of them in Washington state, many in King and Pierce counties. The integration process can be tough for new arrivals, facing language and cultural barriers, loneliness and isolation, difficulty in navigating services, and lack of vocational experience.
Project Feast aims to mitigate these problems. Its six-week course teaches kitchen basics such as knife skills; cultural expectations regarding timeliness, body language, and respect; and overall professionalism. And because the classes are small and students teach classmates a recipe from their home country, there’s a public speaking component to it as well.
“I went in to Project Feast because I was hoping to develop a recipe I make into something I could package and sell,” says recent graduate Naffie Sinyan. “I learned to cook through my mom, so I didn’t know anything about food handling or professional knife skills. Now, after taking these classes, I feel like I could walk into a professional kitchen. They made it so easy to understand, even for people who couldn’t read or speak much English.”
“The resettlement process for immigrants can be a really isolating experience,” says Alanna McDonald, Project Feast’s program and event manager. “It’s hard to know where to make friends. But to have food bring people together—it just makes sense. No matter what your first language is or what your background is, people come together around the table, over interests in the same things, and they find a community where they feel supported. The difference in self-confidence that students gain is astonishing. It’s one of the things that is intangible about our program—you can’t put a statistic to it.”
Though not necessarily quantifiable, this confidence boost is particularly obvious at the course’s graduation ceremony, when students each cook a dish for attending families and alumni and stand up—frequently with tears in their eyes—to talk about their experience and their dish. It’s the day that Project Feast founder and executive director Veena Prasad finds most gratifying. “I’m so proud of the students learning to put aside their nervousness and worries about their English and finding their voice,” she says. “This inspires me to no end.”
Prasad knows a thing or two about culture shock. Born in Bangalore, India, she moved to the U.S. at age 17 and later lived in Germany. After years in the corporate world, she started Project Feast in early 2013 as a way of integrating her passion for food and her desire to help immigrant populations. She won $20,500 through the Social Venture Partners’ Fast Pitch competition to help fund the program.
The cost of running Project Feast’s programs is offset by grants such as Fast Pitch and through money raised from the organization’s other branches: cooking courses offered to the public and catering based on student recipes. This allows the organization to offer its kitchentraining program free to qualified applicants—McDonald says she hasn’t had to turn anyone away yet.
At the start of each course, most students have never written a recipe or worried about a dish’s scalability to restaurant or catering quantities. They’ve likely never needed a hotel pan or learned to brunoise a carrot. It’s the job of chef instructor and kitchen manager Daniel James—affectionately called “Chef Buck”—to change that.
Though he’s only been with Project Feast for a year, Chef Buck comes with eight years’ experience at FareStart, a Seattle culinary job-training program that works with the homeless, so he’s no stranger to working with communities in need.
“I spent a little time thinking I wanted to get out of nonprofits,” he says. So he spent a year working at a golf course restaurant after leaving FareStart, “but it just didn’t make me happy. I heard about Project Feast, and it’s like FareStart was 20 years ago. It still has that homey feel, and I love that.”
A brusque guy with faded tattoos, an easy smile, and a penchant for making macarons in his off-hours, Chef Buck gets a little emotional when talking about graduates of the program. “They come back and they give back,” he says. “It’s very rewarding. It’s one of the reasons I choose to work in nonprofits rather than working in restaurants or working for myself.”
Thanks to a 2014 move to a permanent home at the Tukwila Community Center, Chef Buck and the others at Project Feast have a wellequipped commercial kitchen to practice in—for teaching not only cooking and food prep techniques but also kitchen vocabulary and professional practices. In addition to the quarterly job-training course, Project Feast offers a food handlers’ permit class. And in July of last year, Project Feast launched an apprenticeship program that gives two students a five-month, hands-on stint working with the community center’s Duwamish Curve Café, open to the public several days a week. That’s where you’ll find Susana Ramirez, now an apprentice, serving up lunch twice a week. Sometimes the menu even includes her popular mole verde.
But Prasad still has big plans in mind for the future of this fledgling nonprofit— and its impact on the region as a whole. “I would love to see our graduates thrive economically and find ways to have their voices heard in the broader community, helping drive change in the Puget Sound area,” she says. “My vision is that we help make this area one that is more welcoming of newcomers and one where people of all communities and backgrounds feel comfortable interacting with each other.” In and out of the kitchen, of course.
Project Feast’s classes and catering menu can be found at projectfeast.org.
The Duwamish Curve Café is located inside the Tukwila Community Center, 12424 42nd Ave. S., Tukwila. Open 11am– 12:30pm, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday.
Chelsea Lin is a Seattle-based freelance writer who has spent the past six years writing about the city’s food scene both in print and online.