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Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images
Chef Jay Fai in Thailand wears a wool cap and safety goggles to ward off the heat from the charcoal fires in the alley where she cooks all of her restaurant’s meals. She won a Michelin star for her high-quality food.

Quality can be found anywhere, as this National Public Radio (NPR) story about a chef in a Thailand alley shows.

Michael Sullivan writes, “Bangkok is legendary for its fun and its food. Especially its street food. And one vendor’s is so good, it has earned a Michelin star for the second year running.

“Raan Jay Fai is a small, seven-table joint in Old Bangkok that’d be easy to miss if it weren’t for the line. There’s always a line.

“You can try to make a reservation, but the place — named after its chef/owner, a local legend — is usually booked a month or two out. Signing up for the walk-in list is the best bet for many, especially tourists. But you need to get there early.

” ‘I got here at 7:30 [a.m.],’ says 24-year old Kashmira Velji, from Austin, Texas, who was determined to try Jay Fai after viewing the chef’s star turn on the recent Netflix special Street Food. Never mind that the restaurant doesn’t open for lunch until 2 p.m. …

” ‘I’ve never had anything like this before,’ Velji says between bites. … ‘Our first bites were very intense. We kind of just stayed silent and were in shock at how good it tastes.’

“Suparat Tretachayakorn — a doctor — isn’t shocked at all. He’s a regular. And the crab omelette is one of his go-to dishes. … He and his friends have also ordered Jay Fai’s famous tom yum soup, and half a dozen other dishes. Tom yum is a Thai staple — made with shrimp, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, chilies, garlic and mushrooms — and it’s found almost everywhere. But that doesn’t mean it’s always good.

” ‘Actually, I don’t normally order tom yum because I know that I’m going to be disappointed at most places,’ he says. …

“It’s another of her signature dishes. One that’s got the visitor from Austin, Velji, baffled. In a good way.

” ‘It tastes just like the soup, but it’s dry,’ she says. “It’s exactly the same flavors of the tom yum soup, but instead of slurping it, I’m chewing it and I’m still getting all those sour, spicy flavors’ …

“Part of the fun [is] watching the maestro at work. The 74-year-old Jay Fai cooks everything herself — over two blazing charcoal fires, in the alley next to the busy street. …

” ‘It’s faster to cook when using charcoal, to stir-fry vegetables,’ Jay Fai says. … Jay Fai is a perfectionist — so much so that she doesn’t let anyone else on her staff do the cooking. That’s another reason why it takes so long to get your food here — even with reservations.

” ‘They can’t do it. This is very hard to do,’ she says. ‘It’s not that I don’t want them to do it, I do. But even when they watch me, they can’t remember anything.’ …

“About that Michelin star: When she got the first phone call, she kind of blew them off. By accident.

” ‘I was confused,’ she says. ‘They said they wanted to invite me to an event, a gala dinner, and I said, “Oh, my, a gala dinner, no thank you. I don’t want to go. What would I wear?” ‘…

” ‘To be honest, it was the high point of my life. If I die now, if anything happens now, I’m OK with it. I’ll die peacefully.’ ”

More at NPR, here.

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Photo: Universo Santi
This haute cuisine restaurant in Spain makes a point of hiring workers with disabilities.

I have posted a few stories about successful operations that hire workers with disabilities, but this is the first I remember seeing about a high-class restaurant set up for the purpose of creating jobs that don’t differ from jobs in establishments that don’t use workers with disabilities.

Stephen Burgen writes at the Guardian, “The first thing that strikes you is the calm, the light, the modern art on the walls – and then of course the food. It’s only later that you realise there is something different, and a little special, about Universo Santi, a restaurant in the southern Spanish city of Jerez.

“ ‘People don’t come here because the staff are disabled but because it’s the best restaurant in the area. Whatever reason they came for, the talking is about the food,’ says Antonio Vila.

“Vila is the president of the Fundación Universo Accesible, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping people with disabilities join the mainstream workforce. He has also been the driving force behind Universo Santi, the haute cuisine restaurant whose 20 employees all have some form of disability.

“ ‘I always wanted to show what people with disabilities, given the right training, were capable of,’ says Vila, who is a senior manager at DKV insurance. ‘They were not represented in the world of haute cuisine. Universo Santi has broken through that barrier.’

“The 20 staff, whose ages range from 22 to 62, were recruited from an original list of 1,500. To qualify, applicants had to be unemployed and have more than 35% disability.

“ ‘I feel really lucky to be part of this,’ says Gloria Bazán, head of human resources, who has cerebral palsy. ‘It’s difficult to work when society just sees you as someone with a handicap. This has given me the opportunity to be independent and to participate like any other human being.’

“Alejandro Giménez, 23, has Down’s syndrome and is a commis chef. ‘It’s given me the chance to become independent doing something I’ve loved since I was a kid,’ says Giménez, who lived with his mother until he was recruited.

“ ‘Working here has transformed my life. So many things I used to ask my mother to do, I do myself. I didn’t even know how to take a train by myself because I’d just miss my stop.’ …

“Universo Santi may soon have a star in the Michelin firmament as the Michelin Guide people have already sampled the menu which, at €60 (£53), is less than half the price of a typical menú de degustación.

“ ‘Of course they didn’t introduce themselves but we knew who they were,’ says Almudena Merlo, the maître d’. …

“The Jerez restaurant takes its name from Santi Santamaria, chef at the Michelin three-star Can Fabes in Catalonia until his sudden death in 2011. Can Fabes closed shortly afterwards but his family wanted to carry on his name and culinary tradition and were keen to support the Jerez project. …

“The family’s enthusiasm attracted the attention of Spain’s top chefs, among them Martín Berasategui, [Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, twice voted the best restaurant in the world] and Ángel León, all of whom have contributed recipes and their time as guest chefs at the restaurant.”

More at the Guardian, here. The article also mentions other European enterprises that employ people with disabilities.

Photo: Universo Santi
Says Alejandro Giménez, a junior chef with Down Syndrome who works at Universo Santi in Jerez, “Working here has transformed my life.”

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Photo: WGRZ
The owner of Sakina Halal Grill, Kazi Mannan, knows what it’s like to be hungry. Thanks to his paying customers in DC, he can give meals to the homeless for free.

Don’t you love successful people who remember how painful poverty and daily anxiety about food can be — and who decide to help others? Tim Ebner reports at the Eater in Washington, DC, about a restaurateur who did just that.

“Come 2 p.m. in many Washington, D.C., restaurants, the lunch rush is all but over. … But for Kazi Mannan, owner of Sakina Halal Grill, the lunch rush is just getting started.

“On a late-Friday afternoon, the door to his Pakistani-Nepalese-Indian restaurant keeps swinging open. A homeless man who is deaf walks through the door. He carries a note. Mannan reads it, then attempts to sign with the man.

“Mannan asks if he wants something to eat while gesturing toward his mouth. The man holds up two fingers and pulls out $2, but Mannan shakes his head no.

“ ‘No money,’ ” he says. ‘You eat for free.’

“That’s Mannan’s policy for every homeless person who walks through the door. At Sakina Halal Grill, the poor, homeless, and hungry eat for free — Mannan calculates he gave away 6,000 meals in 2016 — and the waiters serve them in the dining room, as if they’re full paying customers.

“The buffet-style, halal restaurant, which is undergoing a name change from Mayur Kabab House to Sakina Halal Grill — ‘It’s a tribute to all the mothers around the world,’ Mannan, who lost his mother Sakina, 26 years ago, says of the switch. …

” ‘I’m the little guy on this block,’ Mannan said. ‘And, I love it. …

‘I want to say, “Hey listen, corporate people and people in politics! Listen to me!” I want to show them what love can do, and I want to spread a wave of love that touches the lives of millions.’

“Mannan says he’s living the immigrant dream, in a place where people are likely to take notice. Keeping his door open — which he did Thursday during the #ADayWithoutImmigrants strike — is more than just good business, it’s an expression of his faith. …

” ‘Kazi Mannan: The restaurant has been here for decades. I took it over in 2013 and this really was my dream. I came from a village in Pakistan that didn’t have electricity or plumbing. Our school was completely outdoors. It was always my dream to overcome poverty and own a restaurant. …

” ‘I started working at a gas station off Benning Road in Northeast. At the time, it was a very dangerous neighborhood. I worked there for a few years, and eventually, I saved enough money to start a limousine service; someone told me that I could make my own money as a driver. The funny thing is — that’s where you meet all of the stars of D.C. I still own the company, and I’m very proud that I can provide jobs to people like me, immigrants. Because seriously for me, this is not about the money. …

” ‘My mother taught me to be generous and give with my time. Because remember, we were broke. But, if we had a guest visit, she would make tea and welcome them into our home. She gave everything of herself. …

” ‘I’m a Muslim-American. And I like to believe that when I’m giving to the poor and hungry, God sees that. Just the act of giving a smile to someone can be a blessing. Just think about what food has the power to do. …

‘ ‘The chefs work together … and not only do they make delicious food, but they represent places, which are typically at odds with each other. They come together in this kitchen and use pure love and food. …

” ‘I am proud to be Muslim-American. I am proud to be a citizen of this country. And as a Muslim, I want to show others the true essence of Islam — and that is to love.”

More at the Eater, here. Manna’s initiative seems to be going strong (click here for a 2019 update), which is reassuring as the Eater article is from 2017. I was sorry to see that when Panera tried something similar, a pay-what-you-want model, it didn’t last. (See Bloomberg.) As philanthropic people keep trying to find ways to feed the hungry while running a business, a model that works long-term will emerge. Meanwhile, one kind individual can make a huge difference in many lives.

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Photos: Giada Randaccio Skouras Sweeny
“There is an incredible amount of value of welcoming in refugees, and it benefits us from an economic perspective, it benefits us in terms of flavors and cuisines.” says the founder of Emma’s Torch restaurant, Kerry Brodie.

What are ordinary people supposed to do against the horrors of the headlines? Another violent person who has brainwashed himself with misinformation about immigrants has acted out. He did it in New Zealand, but his online buddies are everywhere.

I am an ordinary person, and here’s all I can do, little as it is. I can donate to causes that work to prevent ignorance and violence. I can remind myself that there are an awful lot of people whose views on immigration are completely different from the evil doer’s. And I can share another story about how one of those people took positive action, to the delight of many.

Amanda Holpuch reports at the Guardian, “Culinary adventures are woven into the fabric of New York City. But in Brooklyn one December night, only one restaurant could offer a five-course meal that began with salmon cake and couscous from Mali and ended with an Iraqi dessert, including in between dishes from Honduras and China.

“The restaurant is Emma’s Torch, a non-profit that teaches refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of trafficking the culinary and communication skills needed for a career in the kitchen. Six days a week, diners are offered a menu described as: ‘New American cuisine – prepared by our new American students.’

“The restaurant began as a pop-up [in 2017] before expanding this summer into a bright, airy restaurant known for its earthy black-eyed pea hummus garnished with dried chillies. The New Yorker food critic, Hannah Goldfield, touted their ‘perfect shakshuka’ served during weekend brunch service in her August review of the restaurant. In 2019, they will open a second space at Brooklyn Public Library.

“Emma’s Torch is named for Emma Lazarus, the poet whose words are inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’

“On one night each month, Emma’s Torch is also the site of a graduation dinner that showcases the flavors of students’ homes, such as the lotus root dyed pink with dragon fruit sauce that was prepared by a Chinese student for the second course of the December dinner.

“Before the first course was served, as the clock ticked down, the restaurant’s founder, Kerry Brodie, spoke over the sounds of sizzling pans.

“There is an incredible amount of value of welcoming in refugees,’ she said, ‘and it benefits us from an economic perspective, it benefits us in terms of flavors and cuisines.’

“In an eight-week, paid apprenticeship, trainees learn how to properly use knives to slice, dice and chop. They also take English classes and participate in mock job interviews. They receive 400 hours of culinary training and are paid $15 an hour for their work at the restaurant and on catered events. In 2017, every graduate was placed in a culinary job. …

“Aya fled Iraq two years ago, fearing persecution because her husband was a professor. Violence against academics became common after the US-led invasion in 2003; the couple were being threatened for her husband’s refusal to obey militias. …

“She studied computer programming for two years but that gave way to cooking, as her efforts were praised by teachers and friends. …

“In Iraq, she could buy their favorite foods cheaply and easily. In the US, she had to craft meals from start to finish, scouring markets for Arab ingredients. … But as Aya kept friends, family and teachers happy with her meals from home, it was clear her future lay in cooking, not computers. The refugee agency Hias connected her with Emma’s Torch.”

Read more about Aya and the work of Emma’s Torch at the Guardian, here.

Emma’s Torch in Brooklyn, NY, is a restaurant that values the contributions of refugees. The name refers to the poem by Emma Lazarus quoted on the Statue of Liberty.

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Photo: My Modern Met
Sekai Kobayashi allows customers to work 50-minute shifts in order to earn their meal.

This story is such a good example of how diversity breeds creativity. The restaurant entrepreneur here got her ideas about a new model of eatery, an open-source eatery, from her former techy career. In the same way, having diversity in a workplace or other organization, including diversity of thought, can be a kind of power pack (as my 3-year-old granddaughter would say) for the mission.

Jessica Stewart has a report at My Modern Met, “Don’t have enough money for a hot meal? That’s not a problem if you are dining at Tokyo’s Mirai Shokudo (aka Future Eatery). Since opening its doors in 2015, owner Sekai Kobayashi has allowed customers to work 50-minute shifts in order to earn their meal at the small eatery, which seats 12 people around a small counter. Kobayashi, a former software engineer, sees the system as part of her ‘open source’ restaurant concept, where the participation of customers helps the business.

“The idea struck her while working for a recipe website, Cookpad Inc., which has an in-office kitchen that staff could use. Encouraged by her colleagues’ compliments, she decided to leave behind her work as an engineer and open her own restaurant. Now, in a little over two years, more than 500 helpers have worked with Kobayashi — who runs Mirai Shokudo by herself — and earned a meal by doing so.

“Ranging from university students looking to save money to a former teacher in her mid-50s hoping to move into the food industry, there’s always someone new in the kitchen. And for Kobayashi, this is part of the joy.

‘I use this system because I want to connect with hungry people who otherwise couldn’t eat at restaurants because they don’t have money.’

“This desire to give back doesn’t just end with a free meal. The former engineer takes things a step further, even sharing the finances of her restaurant with the public, … she shared with China Daily.

“ ‘I posted the restaurant’s business plan and finances on its website so I can collect input from the public on how to make improvements.’ Not only does it help her, but it also serves as a resource for others who may be interested in opening their own restaurant.” More here.

Hat tip: Boston Public Radio with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, a show I really enjoy. It airs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays.

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Photo: Anna Mindess
One of Ba-Bite’s colorful salads: red cabbage with mung bean sprouts, dried figs, arugula and feta and the creamiest hummus. The restaurant is like a welcoming family for immigrant workers.

Lisa, who lives in Oakland, California, put this nice story about an Oakland restaurant on Facebook. If I ever go to Oakland, I’m going to visit Ba-Bite in person.

Anna Mindess writes at KQED Food, “They’ve won accolades for their silken hummus and rainbow of organic salads, but for the owners of Oakland’s Ba-Bite, the most precious thing the almost two-year old restaurant can display right now may be the Sanctuary Restaurant poster on their front door. …

“Ba-Bite is Hebrew for ‘at home.’ Even though most of Mica Talmor and Robert Gott’s employees don’t speak Hebrew, (besides English, they speak Spanish, Maya, and Arabic) they completely understand the concept. The majority of them — like most food service workers in the Bay Area — are immigrants. After walking across deserts at night, being shortchanged or abused in other restaurants where they could not complain, working at Ba-Bite feels like they have found a family.

“Russell Chable manages the kitchen at Ba-Bite and is responsible for set up, prepping, and cooking. He grew up in a tiny town in Mexico’s Yucatan. … He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up to his lead position in Ba-Bite.

“After eight years away from home, Russell missed his mom. Sure, he would talk to her on the phone every week, but he wanted to see her face. So this determined young man decided to build his parents a cell tower so that he could FaceTime with his mom. Six months ago, he made contact with a man back in Mexico who outlined what would be needed: laptops, cables and a cell tower. Russell had his uncle check out the man and then sent money. Now he uses FaceTime to talk to his mom every week, and his parents have a small business renting out computer and internet time. …

“Fatima Abudamos is from Jordan and works as cashier. She also holds the distinction as Ba-Bite’s best falafel shaper. As she stuffs the green balls with sheep’s milk feta, she says, ‘This is an amazing place, just like a family. I’ve worked here almost two years. Mica is not like a boss, she’s more like a friend. She doesn’t scream if you make a mistake; she explains things. I feel safe here; it’s my second family.’ …

““We pay all of our workers well,” says Gott. “Partly because we know how expensive it is to live here. My experience is that more often than not, immigrants are working multiple jobs or longer hours, and forgo taking time off at all costs, as they want to or need to make money. …

“[Food runner Kasandra Molina says,] ‘This space here doesn’t feel like a workplace, it feels like home. We all get along. They care about our opinions and feelings. They don’t treat us just as employees; it’s more like a family.’ ”

More at KQED, here.

Are you in Oakland? Check out Ba-Bite at 3905 Piedmont Ave. Phone: (510) 250-9526

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In India, a civic-minded restaurant put a working fridge out front so patrons could join the eatery in offering leftovers to the hungry instead of throwing good food away.

Elyse Wanshel writes at the Huffington Post, “Pappadavada, a popular restaurant in Kochi, is urging customers and the community to put their leftover food in a refrigerator located outside of the eatery for the hungry to take. …

“The fridge is open 24-hours a day, seven days a week and stays unlocked. … Pauline told the Huffington Post that despite a huge response from the community and ample donations, the fridge needs to be restocked regularly. Pauline herself adds around 75 to 80 portions of food from Pappadavada a day in the fridge. …

“The idea to put a fridge on the street came to Pauline late one night when she saw a lady searching in a trashcan for food. As she watched the woman, she had a terrible thought:

“ ‘That the woman had been sleeping and was woken up by her hunger, so she had to go in search of food instead of sleeping.’

“She was especially saddened because that particular night, her restaurant had made a ton of food that they could’ve easily given the woman, instead of her searching for it.

“The experience made her feel like she contributed to waste, and avoiding waste is what Pauline is focused on.

“ ‘Money is yours but resources belong to society,” she told HuffPost. “That’s the message I want to send out. If you’re wasting your money, it’s your money, but you’re wasting the society’s resources. Don’t waste the resource, don’t waste the food.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Thesny Alikhan
Minu Pauline, right, the restaurateur behind the free food fridge, with a supporter, actor/director Thesny Alikhan

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