Keeping people working, serving the food-insecure, and expanding the reach of migrant foodways.
By Nasser Jaber as told to Chris Mohney
Nasser Jaber is cofounder of the Migrant Kitchen, a catering company and social impact organization that hires immigrants, migrants, and undocumented workers to both train them in commercial cooking as well as help gain their cuisines more exposure in the marketplace.
Three years ago, I launched a dinner series called Displaced Kitchens which lifted hundreds of families out of poverty through dinners executed by refugees. The dinners fed around 5,000 people and got adopted by the State Department as part of their gastro-diplomacy missions to the world. We helped build kitchens in Istanbul. We did American halal beef on a diplomatic mission on behalf of the government to Morocco, and also another place in Sweden.
My mentor is Daniel Dorado, the former chef de cuisine at Ilili. Daniel and I started talking about how we could create an impact company that follows our mission, talks about food, and at the same time just does corporate lunch—because margins in catering are higher, and we could employ migrant workers.
I was coming out of another company where I was doing the refugee dinner stuff with another startup. It was all exciting. We had the South by Southwest staging, and TED, you name it. But we were not the founders, not making money. Yeah, we were lifting people out from poverty, but at one point we defaulted on debt. How could we do something for profit, and at the same time have impact?
So we did a catering company. It’s not glamorous, it’s not sexy. In the beginning, we were like, OK, we’re bringing migrant workers or refugees to cook their cuisine, and we teach them how to cook in a commercial kitchen. These guys are trained like in high-end kitchens, where there’s a lot of tips and tricks they only get by being in the industry for a long time.
Cooking their own cuisine was exciting. And they do cook good food. My cofounder Daniel was trained in some of the best kitchens in the world. So was our chef de cuisine Ryan Graham. They wanted to execute migrant food not in a fusion way, not in a super-fancy way. They wanted to have deep discussions about our food.
We sat down with the team, the cooks, the migrants, refugees, and we started having discussions about food. It started with a simple thing. Like quipe, in the Dominican Republic—with migration from Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, it became part of their cuisine. Esfiha and other stuff are a big part of Brazil, also because of migration. The flavor of migration, if you like.
The end result is that we started coming up with these innovative dishes that are priced really well—they’re healthy, they’re great, but with the flavor of migration. We started selling them, and our first big client that allowed us to come into their spaces and sell food directly to them was WeWork. We had around 20 locations where we would do a pop-up—and from those sales we empowered our workers, we made some money, and at the same time we’re doing $13, $14 plates.
Because I grew up in Palestine, I knew there were going to be food insecurity issues due to the pandemic shutdown. I used to depend on sacks of rice from the United Nations Relief Workers Agency. These things were very real. With that in mind, I talked to Daniel, and I was like “Look, man, we have 1,000 plates in our fridge. We should definitely give them to the food-insecure, because I’m pretty sure as things shut down, and given that we saw a lot of people lose their jobs in 2008, the poor are going to get hit really hard.”
The shutdown happened in the first week of March. We contacted World Central Kitchen, and we were like, “We’re planning on doing this.” They basically said, “We already have measures in place on our end, because we need people who can scale.” We didn’t know if we could scale or not. We gave out 1,000 meals—a lot of them went to a shelter called The Door that deals with homeless children and women who are victims of domestic violence.
Now, if you’re Arab and you’re not a doctor or a lawyer or engineer, you’re a failure to the family. Therefore, I’m the failure. So all my successful cousins who are doctors called, and they were like, “Hey, we need food. The restaurants are shut down.” So I thought of sending food to the hospitals. People were not eating right—they were only getting pizza, so they were tired. I started sending to the ER units, the COVID units. Eventually I scaled up to around 11 or 12 hospitals. That’s before feeding the healthcare workers became a trend.
Our work got picked up by MSNBC. We didn’t have any money at all, so we did a GoFundMe. We created a nonprofit for the initiative so it could be held accountable for every cent. We took that money and started paying our workers, and we hired them back in the kitchen to cook for the healthcare workers. The real goals for us are one, keeping our employees working, and two, making sure that the food-insecure are getting food. The public cares a lot about feeding the doctors, but nobody’s talking about feeding the poor. From the experience I had with the refugee stuff, things have to be trendy and commercialized. Fortunately, the MSNBC coverage raised some money for us, which was great. We’re running week to week on donations against our running costs.
So far, we raised enough money to have two kitchens live and send out 1,000 meals a day, which was what we wanted to reach. Now we are getting the Muslim community asking us for food, because Ramadan is coming on April 20. There’s a lot of them who’ve lost their jobs. And just as José Andrés said, there are ghosts in the system—undocumented people. They don’t know where to go. Nobody’s providing healthy food. So we talked to World Central Kitchen, and we said we would like to provide halal food with them. They took us on as a vendor. We go under their umbrella, and we will send out food to the Muslim community throughout Ramadan.
At the same time, we still feed nine hospitals and those in need. Our goal is to get to 5,000 meals. The most important thing here is empowering and talking about the undocumented workers—those who can’t get unemployment insurance but still have to pay taxes. We ourselves are sometimes afraid to talk about it because we are afraid of ICE. Being Arab and living through the NYPD spying scandal and the Muslim ban, it was very frightening.
Getting 1,000 to 5,000 meals, my thought is how many unemployed workers can I feed? No, I can’t feed the whole city with that, but I would love to figure it out. We also did a partnership with DoorDash, and that was really important. DoorDash waived all their fees, and all the money that we pay goes to their drivers. That was very appealing because we can deliver on time, on point, and also help couriers. It’s a trifecta of impact—you’re feeding people for free, you’re hiring undocumented workers, and you’re getting the drivers to work.
This is where we are now. What makes us proud as founders is that this is a people-to-people disaster relief mission founded by a Palestinian and a Mexican-American, with a white American head chef who comes from the poor suburbs of Pennsylvania. The point here is poverty is what makes us all equal. This virus puts us all on the same level too—rich, poor, black, white. It doesn’t matter. Poverty is still the struggle. Yes, it has multiple layers of religion and ethnicity and migration and refugee status or whatever. But poverty is the key. And the way to exit poverty is through food.