A young San Francisco woman's passion for the plight of refugees has resulted in our city's first Refugee Food Festival, slated to touch land here in time for World Refugee Day.
First launched in Paris in 2016, the now-global festival invites restaurants to "...open and entrust their kitchens to refugee chefs, to share tasty and united moments." This year's event includes more than 100 restaurants in 15 cities around the world—think Amsterdam, Athens, and Cape Town—with San Francisco (and New York) representing for America for the first time. And the lineup looks delicious.
For more than a year, 23-year old Sara Shah has been working to bring the Refugee Food Festival to SF and, to her credit, the rewards are looking sweet. Over the course of five nights (June 19th through the 23rd), five pop-up dinners will be prepared by refugee chefs alongside top local chefs from Hog Island Oyster Co., Tawla, Dosa, Son's Addition, and Jardiniere. Each meal will consist of special dishes from the refugee cook's home country, including Myanmar, Iraq, Bhutan, and Senegal.
Refugee Food Festival's San Francisco project manager Sara Shah (left) with Iraqi refugee chef Muna Anaee.(Renée Alexander)
As project manager for the San Francisco event, Shah—who is fluent in English, Spanish and Urdu, and speaks conversational French and Arabic—sought approval from the United Nations to host the event here and sourced all the local refugee chefs. She then had the hard (not) task of taste-testing their dishes, and then of rounding up SF restaurants willing to open their kitchens. Matches were made based on cuisine and personality. Translators were then brought in so the refugee chefs could communicate with local chefs and their kitchen crews.
"I am so very humbled to be working with the amazing and resilient refugee chefs who have made it all worthwhile," says Shah who, as a political science major and Arab Studies minor at North Carolina's Davidson College, spent a summer living with a Jordanian family in Amman, studying Arabic and interviewing Syrian refugees. She hopes to help spread the Refugee Food Festival across the U.S. the way it has spread across Europe, where it was founded by a few well-traveled Parisian citizens who wanted to improve the welcoming and integration of refugees.
"I know Refugee Food Festival's message of using the power of food to break down walls and foster positive conversations about refugee issues will be welcome in cities across the USA," Shah adds.
No tickets are needed to attend San Francisco's Refugee Food Festival, which is supported by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. Diners simply make reservations at their chosen restaurant(s) during dinner service on the appropriate date and order directly from the evening's special menu. Partial proceeds will be donated to local organizations working to welcome and integrate refugees into the community.
Most menus are still being developed and won't be finalized till last minute, but each culinary team will prepare foods that are specific to the home country of the refugee chef and in keeping with the style and values of the hosting restaurant.
June 19: Myanmarese Cuisine
Where: Hog Island Oyster Co., One Ferry Building (Embarcadero), hogislandoysters.com
Pull up a chair for a feast prepared by Pa Wah, who was born in the Karen state in Myanmar. As a child, her family fled on foot to Thailand, where she spent the majority of her life in the Mae La refugee camp, where she ran her own business selling home-cooked food to other refugees. She moved to the U.S. six years ago with her five children.
June 20: Iraqi Cuisine
Where: Tawla, 206 Valencia (Mission), tawlasf.com
Iraqi chef Muna Anaee, along with her husband and two children, escaped the violence and despair in Baghdad. Her ESL teacher in Oakland encouraged her to pursue a culinary career after tasting the dishes she brought to share with classmates. She hopes to eventually open her own Iraqi restaurant in the Bay Area.
June 21: Bhutanese Cuisine
Where: Dosa, 1700 Fillmore St. (Fillmore), dosasf.com
Ever had Bhutanese food? Anu Mapchan, a Bhutanese chef who arrived in the U.S. in 2011 with her husband and their children, is doing the cooking tonight. After immigrating to Oakland, her family began a tradition of gathering with other families on New Year's Day for a celebratory meal, where she cooks for more than 100 people, sharing dishes she learned from her mother.
June 22: Iraqi Cuisine
Where: Son's Addition, 2990 24th St. (Mission), sonsaddition.com
Muna Anaee, the same Iraqi chef who is cooking at Tawla on Wednesday, is making a second appearance tonight. Call 415-500-2817 or email email@example.com to make reservations.
June 23: Senegalese Cuisine
Where: Jardiniere, 300 Grove St. (Hayes Valley), jardiniere.com
The iconic Hayes Valley restaurant welcomes Vito, a Senegalese chef who will prepare, among other items, thiéboudienne, his country's national dish of red rice and fish. The bar will serve a bissap cocktail made with refreshing Senegalese hibiscus tea.
// San Francisco Refugee Food Festival, June 19-23; for more information, go to refugeefoodfestival.com.