“When the kids go to bed, I start to bake.”
Taghreed Ibrahim wasn’t born a baker. She graduated from graphic design school in Iraq, where she lived with her husband, a journalist, and their small child.
As the Iraq War unfolded, the climate became unsafe for those working in the media. Ibrahim eventually found herself in Dubai, where she fled with her husband in 2006, stuck at home, lonely and isolated. Like Julia Child when her husband Paul was transferred to Paris with the U.S. Foreign Service, Ibrahim turned to cooking to pass the time, and discovered her calling.
“I was desperate — I had no family [in Dubai],” said Ibrahim. “I find when I’m cooking, especially baking, that I’m in a good mood. It helps me a lot.”
It wasn’t just her mood that improved.
Unable to sleep under the stress of transition, Ibrahim baked through the night, improving her skill and unloading hundreds of cookies and cakes onto her son’s school, or distributing them to neighbors.
After six years in Dubai, where English was prevalent, Ibrahim’s language skills began to improve, and she was able to translate recipes from American cookbooks at the library. She devoured American cooking shows — Rachael Ray, Barefoot Contessa and “of course,” Martha Stewart.
By the time she and her family arrived in the U.S. as refugees in 2011 and she began looking for work, it seemed only natural that she would wind up at Project Feast. The new job-training program based in Tukwila helps refugee and immigrants succeed in the food industry in King County.
Project Feast’s pilot program is a six-week ‘Commercial Kitchen Basics’ training course that teaches basic industrial kitchen skills, as well as tips for while navigating the bureaucracy and challenges of the food industry. Since they began in 2013, 25 students have graduated from the six-week class, and 130 have received basic assistance acquiring food handler’s permits.
“We [in America] have a very linear understanding of time. It’s very different in other cultures — it’s something we try to make more manageable for students,” said McDonald, referring to students adjusting the hectic pace of an commercial kitchen, and frenetic urban life in America.
The program is unique in that it tailors other basic job-training skills curricula to the food industry. The ESL component, for example, moves beyond ‘knife’ and ‘fork’, to demystify words like ‘commercial dishwasher’, ‘whisk’, and ‘potentially hazardous foods’.
Most recently, Feast launched, a paid five-month apprenticeship program — a second step for graduates of the six-week course — allowing them a chance to work alongside Chef Daniel ‘Buck’ James, formerly of FareStart. In that program apprentices like Ibrahim deepen their food knowledge with hands-on learning, while earning an income — an important step for immigrants who often face barriers to employment, and tend to earn less than native-born counterparts.
If Ibrahim could make herself a baker in her lowest moments, then Project Feast, she felt, could certainly make her a cook. After working at the deli counter at Safeway when she first came to the Northwest, she found herself unable to work her schedule around her children, getting home at 11 or 12 at night. Eventually, Ibrahim was referred to Project Feast by a caseworker at the International Rescue Committee. Eager to work with food, Ibrahim joined fellow Iraqis as well as students from Eritrea and Cote D’Ivoire for the introductory course, and in July, became a paid apprentice.
After she graduates, she hopes to work under a mentor baker, and eventually open her own bakery.
The mish-mash of cuisines tackled in the Feast program is a reflection of an increasingly diverse community in King County, where immigration is on the rise and the collective palette is expanding. Feast offers paid cooking classes open to the public to help bring in money for the program, while the industrial kitchen at the Tukwila Community Center churns out dishes like biryani and kunafeh for caterings gigs and preps sandwiches for a weekly deli for seniors.
Participants help to develop recipes and learn techniques, bringing their own expertise from their home countries to the kitchen with them.
Though there is no shortage of hardships for newcomers to King County, finding ingredients to prepare traditional foods, it appears, is not one of them. A participant from Cote D’Ivoire found plantains for her dish at a Mexican grocery, while Eritreans looked to countless Ethiopian stores for injera. An Iraqi participant said she found nearly everything she needed at a Winco Foods, a large, national discount grocer in Kent.
“We are always eating,” says McDonald.
But the most salient takeaway of the program isn’t the food, she says, but the confidence.
“Before, I was scared of everything,” said Tigist Welda, an immigrant from Ethiopia. Although she spent much of her life in customer service working at a Hilton hotel in Addis Ababa, after moving to the U.S. she became quiet and reserved. Though she had lived here on and off since 2006, she has rarely had the opportunity, or the confidence, to practice her language skills.
But by the end of the six week course, Welda stood in front of a crowded room at graduation, presenting her process for preparing the Ethiopian dishes the room had sampled — something she couldn’t have imagined doing when she first began.
Welda’s presentation sums up the spirit of the organization, focusing not only on what students can learn, but what they have to teach.
“You shouldn’t come in to this class, and wipe your slate clean. That’s not what we expect,” said McDonald, who has seen everyone from home cooks to former accountants pass through the program. “Your culture is an asset. How can we give you some extra tools, then leverage that and find a good job?”
Over a plate of homemade treats — an Iraqi semolina cake called basbousa, and a chocolate cupcake with handmade fondant decorations, Ibrahim glowed talking about her past year.
“So many good things have happened to me, so fast,” she said.
The best thing about the program, she insists, is that she doesn’t have to google or go to the library anymore. When she has a question about cooking, she just turns around and asks the chef.
Join a Project Feast cooking class, held at the Tukwila Community Center, between 5:30 and 8:30 PM. Classes are $32, or $25 for Tukwila residents and are taught by Project Feast participants. More info at www.projectfeast.org.