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.