It was food that brought together Bright Brown and Dorcas Awuah years ago on the other side of the world.
Awuah sold kenkey and fried fish, along with other dishes, from a roadside cart in Ghana. Brown would visit the stand, buy the food and watch – with appreciation – as Awuah served others with patience and kindness.
“That’s how I met her,” Brown said last week. “This is why I fell in love with her.”
Awuah immigrated to the United States, settling in Spokane, and Brown followed in 2013. They are raising two children here and working – and they’re looking forward to a new chance for Awuah to return to the thing that first united them: Awuah’s cooking.
They are among a group of immigrant and refugee chefs and cooks eager to participate in Feast World Kitchen, a restaurant project planned to open later this year in the former Sushi Yama space at Third and Cedar.
It’s an enterprise to feed both heart and belly – something to satisfy a foodie’s desire for more world cuisine in Spokane while fueling a new way in which the city can be a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees.
The restaurant will initially offer a rotating selection of foods prepared by chefs from around the world, including those fleeing war and violence, while helping them take steps toward opening their own food trucks, catering firms or other businesses.
Brown is excited to work toward the possibility of starting a new food business with his wife, who already prepares meals for some Ghanian refugees and others in Spokane. They plan to offer traditional Ghanian dishes such as kenkey – a kind of dumpling – served with hot sauce and fish; black-eyed beans with fried plaintains; and banku, a paste of fermented corn and cassava dough that is often served with soup.
Ross Carper, who runs the Compass Wagon breakfast truck, and Dan Todd, who operates Inland Curry out of the Woman’s Club of Spokane, are the primary forces behind the project. Carper is the president of the board of the nonprofit Feast Collective, which oversees the project, and Todd is executive director.
“Both Dan and I have been doing neighborhood-based food businesses these last couple of years, but we’ve also both loved working with these immigrant and former refugee families,” Carper said.
Maisa Abudayha, a chef who emigrated from Jordan to Spokane with her husband and four children in 2013, said the project is meant to help newcomers navigate the daunting challenges of becoming established in their new homes.
She has been working as a bilingual specialist for Spokane Public Schools and preparing Middle Eastern fare for community and family events, seeking every opportunity she can to pursue her cooking. She wants to take it to the next level, but there are a lot of barriers to entry in the food-service business.
“I am ready to open a business now,” she said. “I love cooking.”
Abudayha said that many people in Spokane may not understand that many refugees coming here are fleeing truly desperate cirucmstances.
“They’re coming from a camp,” she said. “They didn’t have a good life. They didn’t have showers for years. They didn’t go to school.”
And now they are here, better off in some ways but in a foreign place that can be difficult for them to understand, she said. Food is a way to bridge that divide.
So far, about a dozen people have expressed an interest in participating, and they are from a variety of places: Iraq, Syria, Ghana. East and West Africa. The Mediterranean.
Mark Finney, the director of World Relief Spokane, said in a video for the project that he knows of many skilled chefs here who haven’t had the chance to share their skills. People in Spokane might not always be aware of the opportunities they have to connect to the wider world through their neighbors right here, he said.
“Food is an important way to do that,” he said. “Food is always one of the most deeply held values in any culture, and to be able to share culture in the way we share food is huge. I’m super excited for this opportunity because of the way it’s going to allow folks to get to know their neighbors by getting to enjoy the food.”
In addition to Compass Wagon, Carper is a part-time employee at First Presbyterian Church, working directly with refugees and immigrants as part of a “good neighbor” team and as the associate director of service engagement.
First Presbyterian has a long and distinguished record of social justice work – and it also happens to own the Third Avenue restaurant, which was an Arctic Circle for years before its days as one of Spokane’s best sushi restaurants.
The church is offering friendly lease terms. Carper and the Feast World team are working to demo and clean the inside of the restaurant. They’re seeking community support through donations or sweat equity – check out Feast World’s Facebook page to help.
Carper was motivated in part by the ugly tenor of national politics surrounding immigration – which stands in contrast with his simple, powerful experiences getting to know new members of the Spokane community who have come here from all over the world, often from desperate or violent circumstances.
“That has been a really powerful thing in my life,” he said. “In the world we live in, there’s way too much fear and scapegoating and hostility and racism toward immigrants and refugees, and it’s been a positive outlet to just get to know folks and try to present a different response.”
Luke Baumgarten, a local arts organizer who helped start the Terrain project and is a subsequent host of other community endeavors, is a board member for Feast Collective.
“The tenor of the national conversation (about immigration) has been so dark,” he said. “This seemed like a really beautiful opportunity to put forth a different vision. This is a reframing of what immigrants and refugees can mean to a community.”
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