Refugee Chefs Are Revolutionizing the U.S. Food Scene

Restaurants and pop-up dinners led by immigrants and asylees cook up cutting-edge cuisine with a side of cross-cultural connection.

Refugee Chefs Are Revolutionizing the U.S. Food Scene

The seasonal menu at Brooklyn restaurant Emma’s Torch features “New American cuisine prepared by new American students.”

Photo by Giada Randaccio Skouras Sweeny

Immigrant-owned restaurants have long enhanced the flavor of food scenes in cities across the United States. But in recent years, as refugee resettlement and immigration issues have fueled some of the country’s most divisive political debates, various eating establishments are redefining what it means to “break bread.”

Global initiatives such as the Refugee Food Festival encourage local restaurants to open their kitchens once a year to chefs from war-torn countries, allowing them the resources to prepare and serve traditional meals from their homelands. Since its 2016 inception in Paris, the festival has reached 14 cities worldwide, including San Francisco and New York City. Now, across the United States, an increasing number of “food incubators” are supporting refugee and immigrant chefs in even longer-lasting ways.

These refugee-powered restaurants provide newly settled U.S. residents with the language, business, and culinary skills necessary to pursue future jobs, and they also offer diners some seriously delicious selections.


In February 2019, Emma’s Torch will open a second location at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Photo by Giada Randaccio Skouras Sweeny

Emma’s Torch
Brooklyn, New York

This restaurant in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood takes its name from an Emma Lazarus poem that decorates the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”). The seasonal menu at Emma’s Torch features “New American cuisine prepared by new American students.” Dishes such as herb-roasted acorn squash topped with fresh cheese and orange thyme vinaigrette are cooked by refugees and asylees from Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Burkina Faso, and beyond as part of an eight-week, paid apprenticeship program. After the newly trained chefs graduate, they’re connected to a network of local culinary jobs.

Global Café
Memphis, Tennessee

The team behind this international food hall in Memphis’s Crosstown neighborhood hails from Nepal, Sudan, Syria, Mexico, and Switzerland. Open throughout the week for lunch and dinner, Global Café features affordable dishes that celebrate traditional cuisine from the chefs’ home countries. Specialties include Nepalese mo mo dumplings crafted by chef Indra, Syrian tabbouleh (vegetarian salad) made by chef Fayha, and spicy Sudanese tea from chef Ibti, who first relocated from Sudan to Egypt before seeking political asylum in the United States.


In 2016, Denver nonprofit Focus Points Family Resource Center opened Comal Heritage Food Incubator in the city’s “RiNo” district.

Courtesy of Comal Heritage Food Incubator/Facebook

Comal Heritage Food Incubator
Denver, Colorado

Located in Denver’s trendy River North Art District, this weekday-only lunch spot provides low-income women—many of them immigrants and refugees from Mexico, El Salvador, Syria, Ethiopia and Iraq—with training in business and culinary arts. From Monday through Thursday, the menu at Comal features Mexican delicacies including chipotle-chile chicken tacos made with homemade tortillas and marinated steak fajitas topped with fresh salsa roja. Coffee and sweets imported from Ethiopia are also on offer on Thursday afternoons. On Fridays, the menu serves Syrian specials from hummus and baba ghanoush to roasted kebabs and rice-stuffed grape leaves.

Refugee-powered pop-up dinners

Across the United States, spontaneous event series that allow refugee chefs to celebrate and share their culinary heritage are also aplenty.

In Baltimore, the Mera Kitchen Collective hosts pop-up dinner events and cooking classes led by immigrant and refugee women, both at restaurants and in private homes. The Syria Supper Club and Sanctuary Kitchen—based in New Jersey and New Haven, Connecticut, respectively—follow similar models.

Seattle-based Eat with Muslims brings “groups of open-minded folks of any faith, from any culture” together to connect over classic Middle Eastern cuisine. And Manhattan’s pasta-centric Pastai restaurant hosts a recurring “Displaced Dinners” series where recently resettled refugees share their stories—and food—with diners.

Have other refugee-powered restaurants and suppers to recommend? Share them with us @AFARMedia!

>>Next: The True Story of What It’s Like to Become a Refugee

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