Farid Rafaty dreams of opening a restaurant where he will cook dishes from his native Afghanistan. One of these would be the luscious mantu dumplings he recently made for a pop-up dinner sponsored by Oakland Bloom, an organization that wants to help him in his quest. It’s been a long journey. At age 14, Rafaty was walking home after getting a haircut when he was forcibly drafted by the pro-communist government as a soldier to fight against the Mujahideen and taken by helicopter to their army base. After spending three weeks trying to operate an anti-aircraft missile launcher, the determined young man escaped from the base and fled his country by walking all the way to Pakistan, where he eventually met up with his parents and eight siblings.
After several years living in France, Rafaty moved to Southern California, and ironically, got his wish to cook authentic Afghan food -- for the U.S. Marine Corps training site in Twentynine Palms. The army had built a completely realistic Afghan town in the middle of the Mojave desert to train Marines before they were deployed to Afghanistan. “It had to be 100% accurate, from the shops to the colors of the clothing to the food,” explains Rafaty. “I was head of kitchen and cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for 220 Afghan ‘actors’ and 40 Special Forces soldiers.” Sometimes Rafaty was also assigned to act a role, such as head of the Secret Service, in exercises where American soldiers were tasked with finding “the bad guys.” The results were impressive. After a month living in the simulated Afghan village, the soldiers were ready. “I received many commendations, and the soldiers expressed their gratitude for preparing them so well, which was crucial to their survival,” says Rafaty. “Now, I want to give back to this wonderful country.” With Oakland Bloom’s help, Rafaty hopes to start a catering business and work his way up to a café where he can make real connections with his customers. “I want a place,“ he says, “where we all know each other’s families.”
Not all the refugees that Oakland Bloom mentors have as much food service experience as Farid Rafaty. Indeed, some have none at all. But the most important quality that Oakland Bloom founder Seanathan Chow looks for when choosing people for the training program is a love of cooking. After several years working to foster social entrepreneurialism as a start-up consultant and volunteering in a variety of non-profits, Chow switched gears to attend culinary school and then cook at Hawker Fare and Nopalito.
His “aha moment” came when he realized he could pair food and social impact to create economic opportunities for refugees and immigrants looking to start their own businesses. He founded Oakland Bloom in 2015. Now, he and his team run an intense two-week training program where refugees receive instruction in running a food business, operating a commercial kitchen, marketing, and testing recipes, all leading up to the Night Market, where they cook and serve their dishes to more than 100 guests.
These pop-up dinners, held monthly in the basement dining room of Oakland’s Clarion Hotel, give the emerging chefs an opportunity to handle a steady stream of customers and engage in conversation with them. Chow is still refining the structure and learning from each event. At the second dinner on March 12, he was dismayed to find that by the time the last two ticketed customers appeared, a couple of the chefs had run out of food. “It was a learning experience for us all,” says Chow, “I want to improve these events each time and use them as a testing ground for a permanent space.”
The next pop-up dinner on April 9 will feature timed seatings to more evenly distribute diners. Besides allowing the chefs to practice feeding people at these events, Chow’s vision also includes encouraging conversations about culture and inspiring guests to volunteer their skills (say in marketing or graphic design) to help these budding entrepreneurs succeed.
The youngest chef in the March 12 Night Market line-up was 23-year old Sara Tebege, who served home-style Eritrean foods atop discs of a dark flatbread. But this flatbread was not injera which is the large spongy crepe-like circles made primarily of teff flour that is a staple in Ethiopian and Eritrean meals.
Tebege featured a unique twist on another traditional flatbread that she calls anababiru, which is usually served in layers. Her dish featured smaller rounds upon which she spread awaze (spiced butter) and piled her doro tibs (spicy chicken) and misr wot (red lentil stew). She explained the significance of this “bread” to some of her customers, explaining that since it has a shorter rising time than injera, it was made every morning in her household and marked the start of the day.
Tebege is Eritrean. Since coming to the U.S. she has been working hard to improve herself and start a new life. When she connected with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in 2014, she met Seanathan Chow who was then a volunteer. In 2015, Sara participated in Oakland Bloom’s food business training program (then in partnership with IRC’s New Roots Program), where participants were introduced to basic business concepts and various types of food businesses through guest lectures, field trips, and workshops.
Through the IRC, Tebege also met Doug Hewitt and recently completed the training program for 1951 Coffee Company. Although she hopes to start working at the café, quickly whipping up lattes for Berkeleyites on the go, her ultimate wish is to have her own café where she can offer the slower-paced, traditional Ethiopian/Eritrean coffee ritual that involves roasting the beans, grinding them, mixing the ground beans with water, then boiling and serving three rounds of coffee with snacks like popped sorghum. The daily ritual emphasizes slowing down and encourages participants to really talk to each other. Through her time with Oakland Bloom, Tebege came up with a name for her café: Mahaza, which means “friend” in Tigrinya, her native language.
At his recent pop-up dinner, Seanathan Chow contributed his own Burmese-inspired tamarind ginger soda. He explains that his motivation for establishing Oakland Bloom was personal: “My parents were immigrants from Burma, where my mom grew up in poverty. My uncle hid on a boat to get here, with only $10 in his pocket. I grew up hearing stories about what it took for my family to come here, and even more so how difficult it was upon arriving. Now my mom and uncle are both successful entrepreneurs," says Chow. "They sacrificed a lot, but they’re proof that anything is possible with a little help from the community and loved ones. It’s heartbreaking when I meet immigrants who feel like owning a business is simply out of their reach. I want my participants to know that Oakland Bloom will support them for the long haul. We’re in this together."
Chow’s ultimate goal is to open Oakland’s first Hawker Center inspired by the food courts for which Singapore is famous. He needs a warehouse or other covered space that would be big enough for each entrepreneur to have his/her own stall. After a pilot program, he hopes to make this a permanent fixture in Oakland. Another part of Chow’s plan is to enlist the help of guest chefs. The Hawker center would have stalls for refugees and immigrants plus Oakland's up-and-coming chefs, who could provide one-on-one mentorships. “What we really need, “ says Chow, “is for everyone to feel invested in the success of others.”