a spread of food on the table at Ubuntu

Brave New Worlds

The refugees and immigrants of Ubuntu Street Café are feeding each other, and Seattle.

Back at home in Ukraine, Iryna Mykhalchuk and her mother-in-law would make giant 10-liter batches of borscht each Sunday, cooking the ruby-red beet soup in a pot so big Mykhalchuk needed to climb onto a step stool to stir it. As the simmering beef stock perfumed the air, she’d stir in julienned beets—rather than grated, as they often are in the Russian version of the dish—potatoes, and green cabbage (another uniquely Ukrainian feature). The chunky soup brimmed with vegetables, bubbling in an enormous portion that would feed the entire house: her own three children, her husband’s twin brother and his family, her in-laws, even her grandparents-in-law. When they sat down to eat, she’d toast bread in a pan with oil, butter, and fresh garlic until crisp and fragrant, a piece for everyone as they sat down to Sunday supper.

Ubuntu Street Café’s employees share their daily family meal.

Now, when she cooks borscht for her family of five in Seattle, where she’s lived for a year and a half, she has trouble translating the recipe into smaller quantities. But when executive chef Lisa Nakamura, who once cooked in the venerated French Laundry kitchen and has run several of her own critically acclaimed restaurants, asked her to recreate it as a restaurant recipe for Ubuntu Street Café in Kent, Washington, Mykhalchuk was ready. She even paired it with little rolls she calls babushka.

Ubuntu, which opened in March in the Seattle suburb, is the teaching kitchen for Project Feast, a nonprofit designed to “transform lives by providing pathways to sustainable employment in the food industry” by training refugees and immigrants in the kitchen. Originally, that came through a six-week, part-time kitchen classroom program. But student feedback indicated the need for a more intense program, and community feedback encouraged something more interactive.

After a year of work, the result is Ubuntu, which brings a small number of apprentices into a four-month program.

The menu at Ubuntu, like a United Nations of culinary hits, marries the diverse background of the immigrants and refugees in the current and previous apprentice programs with the logistical realities of running a training cafe. A lentil stew from the small African nation of Eritrea shares space with a Burmese chicken curry, a world of flavors on a tiny—just three appetizers, four entrees, and two desserts—menu. Beyond ensuring that the menu accommodates dietary restrictions, founder and executive director Veena Prasad wanted to make sure the apprentices filled in gaps in their cooking knowledge. “Cake isn’t a thing in all cultures,” for example, so the menu includes Mexican-inspired tres leches cupcakes for them to learn on, Prasad says.

Tuesdays at Ubuntu are for prepping. Mykhalchuk rolls out small lamb meatballs called kofta, while her fellow apprentice, Tenaye Adem, grates onions. Two metal tables are pushed together to form a counter, and chef Nakamura keeps a watchful eye on them. She’s making crepes, which will later be lunch for the team.

Trainees Iryna Mykhalchuk (left) and Nadezhda Mayster prep for lunch.

Adem looks up from her onions and, with a nod and a look, points out a bowl of ginger that Mykhalchuk forgot to add to the meatballs. Mykhalchuk scrapes the portion of the pan already rolled out, adds the ginger, and massages the mixture together. The women spend their days helping each other, working as a team to decipher recipes or turn their own home cooking into a catering dish, puzzling over instructions with heads together or assisting in finding the right measuring spoon. Nakamura watches, occasionally guiding, but mostly letting them work on their own. “I tend to French-ify everything,” she says. Instead, she works with the women to walk the fine line between adapting the dish to restaurant cooking and Westernizing it.

The cafe is housed in a century-old train station, along with nonprofit offices, a martial arts studio, and a sushi restaurant. The hall ends in a small room where a few mismatched tables and chairs mingle, and a glass wall offers a view into the cafe kitchen. A chalkboard on the counter greets visitors in a half-dozen languages—a message echoed by the universal aroma of welcome: spiced stews simmering over a low flame. Adem takes a quick break from chopping onions to chat on the phone with one of her two daughters back in Ethiopia, to whom she speaks about once a week.

Despite her enthusiasm for the training program, Adem acknowledges that her struggle with arthritis makes her unlikely to end up working in a restaurant. She walks with a slight limp, keeping one leg almost straight. The 48-year-old grandmother is hardly suited for the arduous physical work of a restaurant kitchen. For 30 years, her husband worked as a truck driver in the U.S. and she stayed home in Ethiopia with her daughters. Most winters, when business was slow, he’d come home for a few months. Four years ago, with her daughters both married and soon to have children of their own, she joined her husband. But waiting this long has its downside: She no longer has any sway, legally, to bring her daughters to the U.S. Now, her husband’s health issues force him to work less at his job, which also supports their children and grandchildren and Adem’s mother in Ethiopia. She hopes to use her newly improved English and kitchen skills to find a job in elder care, as a cook or an aide, to help support her family.

Mykhalchuk is also unsure about ending up in a restaurant kitchen. In Ukraine, she ran a school kitchen, cooking for 250 kids five days a week. She was somewhat ambivalent about leaving her home in western Ukraine, pulled here along with 17 other family members by her brother-in-law. “My son had a dream about America,” Mykhalchuk says, half-smiling. Her kids, ages 3, 8, and 10, love it here—they have video games they couldn’t afford in Ukraine, and plenty of nature nearby. She’s more hesitant, but admits that Seattle’s beauty has found a place in her heart, too. “Every day I see Mount Rainier.”

Both women cite communicating as their biggest challenge, though by the 12th week of the program they both seem able to easily converse in English, complete with kitchen terms and jokes. Adem knew little English before coming to the U.S.; she wasn’t able to go to school long enough as a kid to learn any. Mykhalchuk, too, says she learned most of her English not only here in the U.S., but here in the kitchen. Her husband, a scientist, works with other Ukrainians and is still hesitant to go to the grocery store alone for fear of conversation. But not her, she shakes her head. “I have lots of friends I learn from. American friends, Ukrainian friends, others.” She smiles at Adem.

Ubuntu’s apprentices with Project Feast staff

The cafe opens at 11 a.m., but on a recent Wednesday, the first customer doesn’t wander in until past noon. Kent doesn’t have much in the way of foot traffic or lunch business. Nakamura says they usually have from 15 to 30 people in a day, but today is slow and only five orders come through. They stay busy, though. Adem is learning to make dal, an Indian lentil stew, for a catering job that week. It doesn’t seem too different from the misir wot—Ethiopian lentil stew—that she taught the others the previous week, but she’s intent on following the recipe Nakamura provides. Similarities and differences between food among cultures comes up often here. “I thought I knew how to make rice!” Adem says, eyes widening as she shakes her head.

The cafe seems to run smoothly at this point, with Mykhalchuk assembling the orders and Adem manning the register, combining the English garnered here with customer service skills learned at the front desk of a hotel in Addis Ababa. But the group started with four apprentices: Two ended up dropping out. Prasad, an immigrant from India herself, explains that committing to the full program is hard for the immigrants and refugees who participate. Appointments with doctors, agencies, and resettlement programs usually need to happen during the work day, and public bus commutes through the southern suburbs can be lengthy. The time commitment to the program, which does include a small stipend and course credits at Highline College, was too much for half the group.

The same thing that inspired Prasad to start Project Feast guides her now: “Food is a good way to have a conversation.”

But part of her mandate, as Prasad sees it, is to push people out of their comfort zone—whether that’s teaching kitchen skills to refugees, or introducing people to foods they haven’t tasted before and to the stories of people who bring those foods to the Seattle area. Things don’t always work out perfectly: Participants drop out, and emails ranging from mild complaints to racist rants flood her inbox. Prasad takes it in stride, learning how to improve the apprenticeship to increase retention and reshaping the programming to better integrate the community. “Seeing discomfort shows me where Project Feast should look to help. As a nonprofit, we can take the time to educate.” Though the cafe is new and even Project Feast is only a few years old, Prasad is already thinking of how she might improve the next session of the apprentice program. The same thing that inspired her to start Project Feast guides her now: “Food is a good way to have a conversation.”

When the whole team sits down to lunch together each day, most meals begin with a conversation about the food on the table. Sometimes it’s serious—how the eggplant stew reminds Prasad of baingan ka bharta, a smoky Indian dish—other times, it’s a joke about who will eat the most tacos. When Nakamura sets down the crepes she made that morning, Mykhalchuk’s eyes light up. “Blinchiki!” she exclaims. She uses Google to find the English word for poppy seeds, her filling of choice, and then goes on to describe how she cooked them in Ukraine: sweet cheese fillings for brunch, savory chicken and mushrooms in the evening, with a bright, creamy sauce on top, maybe some fruit inside for dessert. Like with her borscht recipe, she specifies tiny differences that make them uniquely Ukrainian.

The staff lunch at Ubuntu is a microcosm of the cross-cultural culinary discussion Prasad encourages on a larger scale with Project Feast. Ideally, she wants to bring people together over food both foreign and familiar at the cafe and through the organization’s evening events—potlucks and a dinner series called Migrating Meals. It’s a translation of culture through shared ritual, and that’s at its most obvious during Ubuntu’s family meal.

Mykhalchuk smiles nostalgically at the memory of making blinchiki for her kids at the same stove she stirred the giant pot of borscht. “My favorite.”

Naomi Tomky lives in Seattle, and has written for Saveur, Fodor’s, and Lucky Peach. Email her at naomitomky@gmail.com.

Photography by Kyle Johnson

Originally Published July 2017