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Activist dining experiences

US chefs are experimenting with themed dining platforms and conceptual food experiences to explore political issues and support refugee communities. They also want to bring the American immigrant experience to life.

“Coming To America”

Story course, a New York-based dinner theater series that explores the migration stories and culinary skills of immigrants through food and storytelling. How Do You Hug a Tiger was launched in February 2018. The six-course dining experience follows the six chapters of Jae Jung’s life. Guests can experience Jung’s journey from Korea to America through her food. Each course becomes more Americanized. The narrative is interactive, with guests encouraged to break a seaweed tuile over their traditional bibimbap dish and create a dripping egg yolk to illustrate how Jung’s mom slapped Jung for going to culinary school. The series celebrates the journey of immigrants to America through this format.

Adam Kantor, co-founder of Story Course, tells JWT Intelligence that “we realized we live in a city filled with amazing immigrant chefs who rarely get the chance to share their stories and a world without much interaction between chefs and diners.” We hypothesized that if you knew the story behind a dish, it would make the experience exponentially more rich. We’ve found out that the answer to this question is “yes, it can.”

Breaking Bread

Some events allow refugees to share their culture through food. The Displaced Kitchen in New York allows recently resettled refugees to host homestyle meals and tell their stories, with half the proceeds going toward their resettling effort. In June, the Refugee Food Festival made this movement more accessible to a larger audience by allowing refugee chefs from New York to prepare their cuisines and share their stories. Half of the proceeds went towards their resettling efforts.

The use of activist meals is also used to discuss current social and political issues. People’s Kitchen Collective consists of chefs, community organizers, and other professionals in Oakland, California, who promote political education through food, art, and activism.

Indigenous ingredients

Other marginalized groups are also highlighted in the dinner series. The I-Collective is a group of indigenous activists from North America that hosts communal meals in order to highlight Native American history and ingredients, as well as discuss issues related to social justice. The collective launched in spring 2017 with a “Takesgiving Dinner” that featured nine courses of indigenous food, such as Navajo Parched Corn, squash soup, and Mexican Sope corn cakes stuffed w/ succotash. These dishes represented different aspects of the chefs’ stories.

Chef Neftali Duran explains, “We formed this collective to have the hard conversations that America’s mainstream doesn’t like.” “We are trying to tell a story about our people, ingredients, and migration routes. The work is powerful because we are calling you home through food. We are trying to awaken the sense of belonging, which is often missing due to genocide and displacement, reservation policies, and other factors that have affected our relationship with food. “Food is a way for indigenous people to connect to their land.”

Culinary causes

Restaurants are responding to this movement by developing training programs that help the underserved launch their culinary careers. Emma’s Torch The restaurant, a New American Restaurant that opened in Brooklyn, New York, in May, aims to empower refugees by providing them with culinary training. Through an eight-week-long paid apprenticeship, it helps refugees learn culinary skills and prepare dishes inspired by their homelands, such as spicy shakshuka-style eggs or black-eyed pea hummus. Students are also provided with ESL training (English as a second language) and job placement assistance in order to secure employment after graduation. Similarly, Hot Bread Kitchen East Harlem has a six-month program to prepare low-income women and immigrants for careers in the food industry.
If you think about it, food is a really universal experience. Kerry Brodie of Emma’s Torch says that sharing a meal doesn’t require a common language. Food can also evoke very specific memories, but they can have universal value. “My memories of sharing a meal with my mother were not all that different from the memories of one of my students who shared a meal with her mother in Saudi Arabia. In some ways, getting to that mindset is a simple way to transcend boundaries. “We’re very interested in the idea that sharing food is a way to share a common humanity.”

Why is it interesting

These programs, which address political issues that are relevant to the food sector, respond to a growing interest in activism from consumers. In our report, “The Political Consumer,” we found that customers are very interested in politics and that they expect brands to take a stand on hot-button topics. 40% of consumers say they value brands that express their political views in advertising. And 44% will only buy from brands that share the same values. Food has proven to be a powerful and immersive medium for raising awareness about political causes. For food entrepreneurs, these platforms offer an opportunity to combine craft with commerce and purpose.

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