Newcomers cook up tastes of home at Thunder Bay’s Culture Kitchen

A culinary program is providing refugees with safety training — and serving up dishes that are changing the city’s food scene
By Jon Thompson - Published on Feb 24, 2020
Participants in Roots to Harvest’s Culture Kitchen program on a recent Wednesday morning. (Jon Thompson)

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THUNDER BAY — Seven women bustle between sizzling and steaming stations in the kitchen at Roots to Harvest, a Thunder Bay non-profit, around noon on a recent Wednesday. They’re busy preparing dishes such as baba ghanoush with pita, Egyptian salad, and chicken fatteh.

These meals are a central ingredient in Culture Kitchen, a free program that helps newcomers to Canada commercialize their culinary skills, providing a venue for them to share their cooking with the local community.

The endeavour from Roots to Harvest was launched a year ago after those involved with the organization noticed that recently arrived Syrian refugees didn’t see their culture represented in Thunder Bay. “It felt like it was a way of addressing so many women not feeling like they had a place when 60 families came to Thunder Bay in two years,” says Airin Stephens, Culture Kitchen’s program manager.

Through the Dinner Dash component of the program, subscribers — there are approximately 100 — pay to stop by to pick up whatever meals Culture Kitchen happens to be producing that evening. They also get a one-page handout that lists ingredients and defines relevant terms.

The program, which runs each Wednesday morning for six-week blocks, began with a focus on Syrian food but now also serves up Jordanian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Sudanese, and Kurdish cuisine.

Along the way, Culture Kitchen has also become a social hub for newcomers. The adult-education class that follows the weekly sessions provides opportunities to interact and practise language. “This was seen as a positive way to get involved in the community,” Stephens says. “We have two women who have been in Thunder Bay for years saying, ‘This is the first time I feel like I can be part of Thunder Bay.’”

When the latest Culture Kitchen participants graduate this coming Wednesday, they will be certified as safe-food handlers. As well as working toward the certification, participants learn about legal requirements in the food sector and customer expectations. Prior to the classes, some may have been used to eyeballing ingredient measurements; here, they become familiar with developing reproducible recipes.

Afaf Alhmada, who left Syria as a refugee in 2016 with six other members of her family, hopes to apply what she’s learning toward a future venture. “I’m planning to open a big restaurant once I’m done and invite all the Canadians to come and eat,” Alhmada says through interpreter Aya Wadi, herself a refugee from Syria.

Wadi’s family plans to open the first sit-down Syrian restaurant in a city where Italians and Finns have been dominant immigrant groups for generations. When Aya returns home from work after translating between Arabic and English at Culture Kitchen, she spends up to six hours cooking for Royal Aleppo Food, her family’s catering company, which is named after the town they fled in the midst of the ongoing civil war. The business has a steady client base, and the family is preparing to open a storefront in Thunder Bay’s entertainment district next summer.

“We only started a few months ago, and people already know about us,” Wadi says. “People are interested in our menus. I’m sure most of our customers — our permanent customers; we have over 30 customers — I’m sure they will be happy.”

Erin Beagle, the executive director of Roots to Harvest, cites Royal Aleppo as one of the program’s success stories: “Royal Aleppo built off the excitement off of Dinner Dash and Culture Kitchen.”

Fatima Banjani, originally from Jordan, was the first program graduate to start her own company, Petra Catering and Baking, in 2015. After arriving in Canada in 1999, she spent four years in Toronto before moving to Thunder Bay with her husband, who’s pursuing a PhD at Lakehead University — and she says refugees have spurred cultural change in the city. “People love having Arabic catering in Thunder Bay,” she says. “It’s changing a lot. There are more activities for the new refugees coming. Superstore is bringing Arabic food in now. We tell the customer service to make things available, and, if we get 10 or more, they bring it. Before, they didn’t have it, but, now, people are asking for it.”

For Wadi, cooking is more than a business. It’s a way of life, a measure of closeness with her family, and a reflection of home. “I’ve always worked with my family. We all worked together as one soul. I think everything will be good,” she says. “And I’m sure Thunder Bay will be ready for us — hopefully.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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