From refugee-hosted meals to political dinners, the culinary industry is using food to raise awareness about hot-button topics.

US chefs have been experimenting with conceptual food experiences and themed dining platforms to explore political issues, support refugee communities and bring to life the immigrant experience in America.

“Coming to America”

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Story Course is a new dinner theater series in New York that uses food and storytelling to explore the migration stories of immigrant chefs. Launched in February 2018, the How Do You Hug a Tiger? dining experience presents guests with a six-course meal that follows six chapters in the life of chef Jae Jung. For the price of a Broadway ticket—$175—guests experience Jung’s move from Korea to the United States through her food, which becomes more Americanized with each course. They are encouraged to interact with the narrative, breaking a seaweed tuile on their traditional bibimbap rice dish to create an oozing egg yolk that illustrates how Jung’s mother slapped her for moving away to culinary school. Through this format, the series aims to celebrate the journey of immigrants in America.

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Story Course. Photography by Matthew Brown
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“We realized that we’re living in a city teeming with fantastic immigrant chefs, who so rarely get to tell their stories, and a world where chefs and diners don’t get much interplay,” Story Course cofounder Adam Kantor tells JWT Intelligence. “Our hypothesis has been that, if you know the story behind the dish, the experience can be exponentially richer. And we’ve figured out the answer is yes, it can be.”

Breaking bread

Other events are allowing refugees to share their culture over meals. The Displaced Kitchen series in New York lets recently resettled refugees host homestyle dinners and tell their story, with half of the proceeds going towards their resettling efforts. The Refugee Food Festival brought this movement to a wider audience in June, opening New York’s kitchens to refugee chefs to serve their home cuisines, hoping to improve their public image and professional integration.

Activist meals are also being used to speak more broadly about current social and political issues. People’s Kitchen Collective is a group of chefs and community organizers in Oakland, California that promote “political education through art, activism and food.” Through organizing free community meals and workshops, it leads structured discussions, where guests can discuss the history of political movements and share their personal experiences.

Indigenous ingredients

Dinner series are also spotlighting other marginalized communities. I-Collective comprises indigenous activists in North America who host communal meals to promote Native American ingredients and history, and discuss social justice issues that they face. Launched in spring 2017, the collective hosted a “Takesgiving” dinner that included nine courses made from indigenous ingredients, including Navajo parched corn, squash soup and Mexican sope corn cakes stuffed with succotash, which symbolize different parts of the chefs’ stories.

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I-Collective. Photography by Jessica Sargent

“We created this collective with the purpose of having harder conversations that mainstream America doesn’t want to have,” explains chef Neftalí Durán. “We’re trying to tell the story of our people, our ingredients and our migration routes. One of the reasons the work is so powerful is because, through food, we’re calling you home. We’re trying to awaken a sense of belonging that oftentimes is missing because of genocide, displacement, reservations and policies that have damaged the way we interact with food. For indigenous people, food is a way to trace yourself back to the land.”

Culinary causes

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Hot Bread Kitchen

Restaurants are responding to this movement by developing training programs that help the underserved launch their culinary careers. Emma’s Torch, a New American restaurant that opened in Brooklyn in May, seeks to “empower refugees through culinary training.” Through an eight-week paid apprenticeship program, the restaurant helps refugees gain culinary skills and create dishes inspired by their home countries, from black-eyed pea hummus to spicy shakshuka-style eggs. The program also provides students with ESL (English as a second language) training and job placement assistance to help them secure jobs after graduation. Similarly, Hot Bread Kitchen in East Harlem offers a six-month training program that prepares low-income and immigrant women for careers in food.

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Emma's Torch. Photography by Giada Randaccio Skouras Sweeny
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“Food is this really universal experience, if you think about it. The act of sharing a meal is something that you don’t need to have a shared language for, and food can evoke memories that, while very specific, can have universal values,” says Kerry Brodie, founder of Emma’s Torch. “My memories of cooking with my mother are not that different from one of my students’ memories of cooking with her mother in Saudi Arabia. Getting to that mindset, in some ways, is just a really easy way to transcend borders. We’re really into this idea that food can be a way of sharing a common humanity.”

Why it’s interesting

By tackling political issues relevant to the food industry, these programs are responding to a widespread interest in activism among consumers. As noted in our report “The Political Consumer,” customers pay close attention to politics and expect companies to address hot-button issues—40% say that they appreciate when brands take a political stance in their advertising and 44% only purchase from brands that stand for what they believe in. Food is proving an immersive and engaging medium to raise awareness of political causes—and for food entrepreneurs, these platforms and initiatives offer a way to combine craft, commerce and purpose.