By Leslie Gevirtz
NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The League of Kitchens initiative solves at least two problems: It provides talented, immigrant home cooks with cash and New York foodies with a chance to do more than just sit in the kitchen and listen to stories of the old country.
"The immigrant is the host. She is the expert. And you are her guest and her student," explained Lisa Gross, founder and chief executive of The League of Kitchens, which brings New York foodies to the homes of immigrants for intimate dinners.
The daughter of a Korean immigrant and a Jewish New Yorker, Gross had "always been interested in the way that foods can bring people together in different ways" and while a graduate art student in Boston living on her own for the first time, day-dreamed about cooking with her grandmothers.
Those dreams became the basis for The League of Kitchens, a business where foodies and tourists learn how to make Afghani, Argentinian, Bangladeshi, Greek, Korean, Indian, Lebanese or Trinidadian dishes from women who grew up eating and cooking the cuisine themselves.
Gross interviewed more than 100 immigrants who would be willing to open their homes, especially their kitchens, cook their native dishes and had a good enough command of English that they could teach for five-and-a-half hours at a stretch.
The cooks are paid $25 an hour for teaching, and for the preparation and clean-up and are fully reimbursed for the food costs and supplies, Gross said. "It's meaningful, well-paid, part-time work," she added.
The small class size and the even smaller New York kitchens make it seem more like a leisurely afternoon spent with a favorite aunt than a formal cooking class.
"I don't think you could do all of this anywhere else," said Mirta Rinaldi, 64, who welcomes visitors to her home in Forest Hills, Queens with yerba mate, Argentina's national drink. "You sit around, you serve it. You share stories."
"Everything is done together," she said, surrounded by Argentine art and bottles of Malbec from Mendoza. "There is an amazing interaction. By the end of the afternoon, it's like having five new friends."
Nawida Saidhosin, 35, who grew up in Kabul, arrived in the United States in 2010 after losing her father, mother and brother. She had been living in Lahore and, with her sister-in-law, regularly cooked elaborate meals for 35 people three times a day.
"In the morning, she would cook and I would wash. In the evening I would cook and she would wash," Saidhosin said. So even though her kitchen in Rego Park, Queens was smaller than the one she was used to, "cooking for six is easy."
Gross found Saidhosin through the International Refugee Committee (IRC) and loved her Quabili Pilau, a lamb and rice pilaf that is considered to be the national dish of Afghanistan.
Saidhosin, who also shows how to cook traditional Afghani vegetables like cauliflower and eggplant, remains amazed that in New York "you can find eggplant all year round. In our country, you can find it too, but in the winter time - not at all."
And while she cannot grill in her apartment, "during the summer, we barbeque in the park," she said.
The five-and-a-half hour classes are held on weekends and cost $149 per person with no more than six students. There are also two-and-a-half hour classes that cost $95.
About 30 percent of those who attend are tourists visiting New York City.
"One of my students was from Sweden, another was from California. People come from all over," Rinaldi said. "It is a very flexible schedule that we have and it is fun. I find that I don't have students so much as I have new friends."
(Reporting By Leslie Gevirtz, Editing by Tim Pearce; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)