Hello! Local (King County) election season is upon us, and it's getting pretty interesting, between the ousting of the incumbent for city attorney (leaving us with a two-woman race that has unfortunately grabbed attention from the likes of Fox News), some hotly contested Seattle City Council seats and the headliner mayoral race between Lorena González and Bruce Harrell, there's a lot for all of us to be thinking about. For the still undecided, there are a couple of resources to check out before you cast your ballot, including tonight's mayoral debate. Catch the previous one, focused on business and the economy, here.

In this issue, Nia talks with Van Nguyen of Project Feast on helping immigrants and refugees develop commercial kitchen skills and the power of connection through food. And Niki talks with an artist whose eye-catching serving ware has us thinking about the holiday/entertaining season...
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Serving Connection

Dish by dish, Project Feast is building relationships, offering up food industry skills training, and culturally appropriate meals to immigrants and refugees—plus diverse take-out to the wider community.

Open to all refugees and immigrants, women comprise the majority of Kent-based Project Feast's culinary skills program. “The first part of our mission is to provide culinary training as pathways to employment," says the organization's executive director, Van Nguyen. "The second part is to engage our community, and we do that through food. Not just feeding people, but sharing the stories behind the food; I think that’s really important." Photo by ToonPhotoClub.

“The City of Kent is one of the top 10 most diverse cities in the U.S., and that is due to the large number of immigrants,” says Van Nguyen, executive director of Project Feast, an organization based in Kent that provides immigrants and refugees with training for employment in the food industry. It also provides culturally appropriate food assistance in partnership with local organizations.

Immigrant and refugee communities resettling in the United States has been a major topic of national discussion for years. Under the Trump administration, the country saw several regressive actions, such as the Muslim ban and child separation at the U.S./Mexico border. Lately, the resettlement of Afghan refugees and Haitians at the border seeking asylum has brought a rush of media attention back to immigration—and the United States government's troubling treatment of, and policies around, people hoping to start a new life in this country.

Crises like the pandemic and climate change directly influence global migration patterns. People often leave to escape dangerous circumstances in their home country, risking their lives on perilous journeys to seek asylum. They often arrive with no possessions or connections and face difficult barriers, such as language proficiency and obtaining employment. It’s a lot of change, and it can be scary. That’s where organizations like Project Feast come in, assisting people by helping them develop important skills so they can land on their feet. “Culinary training is what we do. We teach refugees skills to work in a commercial kitchen. Along with that, we provide ESL [English as a Second Language] to help them learn kitchen language,” says Nguyen.

Project Feast also provides small business workshops to help those wanting to open their own food business instead of working in someone else’s kitchen. “The food industry employs a lot of immigrants in general, but it’s also the industry where individuals can actually start a business,” says Nguyen. Though a lot of people are great cooks at home, cooking in a commercial kitchen is a whole different ball game, especially since American commercial kitchens have a lot of laws and regulations, she says. “There are things you need to know, and we’re happy to provide that knowledge.”

Project Feast begins with the very first steps: Teaching people how to cook. Prior to the pandemic, the organization gave its apprentices real-world experience through its catering program and dine-in spot, Ubuntu Street Café. But, when Covid-19 struck, all of the organization’s catering jobs and the café shut down within a week, forcing them to restructure quickly. At the time, the organization was sharing kitchen space with Food Innovation Network (FIN), which was having its own kitchen renovated. FIN was approached to do a food assistance program in the wake of Covid-19, so Project Feast joined forces with them to serve between 200–300 meals per week to immigrant families and seniors. This program, called Community Meals, has continued post-lockdown (FIN has returned to its own kitchen) with Project Feast now partnering with local organizations in Kent. The program receives support through grants to cover food, packaging, and labor—which keeps staff and the training program afloat.

One important aspect of Community Meals is that the dishes are culturally appropriate to the people they’re serving, such as halal meals for the Iraqi Community Center of Washington. “These new refugees, they’re not used to a lot of the foods that are coming through food assistance programs,” says Nguyen. Because Project Feast works on a small-batch scale they’re able to make a more direct impact by partnering with, and targeting the specific needs of, different organizations. This also allows them to carefully consider ingredient sources and overall nutrition. For example, she says, “With seniors, you definitely have to think about the sugar and salt content. So, we’re very aware. We cook from scratch, so all of our food we can control what we put in there.”

However, in addition to Community Meals, the organization still needed to bring in revenue to make up for the loss of the catering program and café so that apprentices could continue to learn the business side of the food industry. Project Feast came up with a takeout option called Family Meals, comprising dishes for two or four people, with a changing menu that reflects a different culture, from Somalia to Honduras, weekly. “It is a family[-style] meal, inspired by apprentices or staff in our program,” Nguyen explains. Family Meals continue to be available for purchase by customers. They currently create 30–50 meals per week. “So basically, per serving, we’re cooking 100 to 150 servings a week for our takeout program. That’s a lot for us, doing 150 takeout meals, plus the 150 Community Meals, is a lot of cooking and packaging that we do. But it keeps us busy, it keeps staff employed and it keeps our apprentices trained.”

Nguyen joined the organization in September of 2019 and had to weather these abrupt changes not long into her new role. But the work is rewarding and combines many of her personal interests. Like Project Feast’s apprentices, Nguyen shares in the experience of being a refugee herself. Her family resettled in Grand Rapids, Michigan during the second wave of migration from Vietnam in the late 1970s. Her family was selected by a local church to receive support, which turned out to be a transformative experience for her family, who developed a long-lasting relationship with the church couple that welcomed them. “I called them Grandma and Grandpa, we were that close,” says Nguyen. “Growing up, I didn’t realize how special that relationship was.” It was only later when she met other Vietnamese immigrants who had sponsors that abandoned them shortly after they arrived in the United States that Nguyen appreciated the experience she had. Her family spent every Thanksgiving with the couple—they even came to her Grandparents Days at school, since Nguyen’s grandparents were back in Vietnam. “Grandma and Grandpa came over for everyone’s birthday, you know, she made her delicious chocolate cake that I remember to this day,” she says fondly.

Nguyen went on to study Asian art and opera, which gave her the chance to travel and learn more about Vietnam. “As an immigrant, you know, coming here very young, I actually did not know a lot about my history, definitely not a lot about the arts. The only thing you hear about Vietnam in the U.S. is the Vietnam War and the issues stemming from that,” she says. “My parents always kind of made fun of me because, to them, that was just part of their growing up. They knew all this. But then to have their daughter, who grew up in America, speaks English, to want to learn more about these traditional arts, had them giggling. Because it’s not something a lot of Vietnamese immigrant children do.” After earning her degrees, Nguyen worked doing outreach for the Asian Studies program at Michigan State University before moving to Seattle for her husband’s doctorate program.

Partly because of the positive relationship that Grandma and Grandpa built with Nguyen’s family, along with her own reconnection to Vietnam through her studies, Nguyen developed a strong drive to make sure refugees get continued support beyond initial resettlement and to help them feel empowered to share their own culture. Such a transition is life-changing in just about every way, and she knows firsthand how impactful community support can truly be.

That extends to mental health. “Most of these people come with trauma and they don’t have ways to address that or to talk about it, because, in a lot of cases, you don’t. Like in my family, my parents never talked about it, because that is not something you talk about in Vietnamese culture; you just suck it up and be stoic about it. But there is trauma there,” says Nguyen. “We’ve seen it in some of our apprentices. At times, we’re at a loss, we don’t know how to help them, especially when it affects their work.” In these cases, Project Feast does their best to connect people to resources and partners that can help. However, Nguyen is also realistic and says it’s important, too, to know the limitations of the help you can offer. It’s best to meet people where they are by asking questions and listening to see if they are getting what they need and “not what you think they need,” she says. Assumptions can do more damage than good.

“We tell them no, no we want them to cook their food and they’re like, ‘No, nobody wants to eat my food’; we change their mind about that, because we want them to know that their food is delicious, and that their skills are valuable and that their knowledge and their history is valuable.” 

Communication is also important for the businesses receiving immigrant and refugee employees after their training, as they may continue to be managing challenges. “The whole community could benefit from patience and [the] understanding that you’re working with people who’ve left everything behind coming to a new country; starting over from scratch with nothing. A lot of these people were not prepared to move.”

Nguyen sees the food of Project Feast not only as nourishment but also as a pathway to engage the community and help build understanding for refugee and immigrant experiences. Nguyen shares the story, often from the apprentices, behind each week’s Family Meal on the website.

Sharing their food can also be a bit of a learning curve for the apprentices, too. Oftentimes when they start, says Nguyen, they say they want to learn to cook “American” food, i.e. burgers and fries. “We tell them no, no we want them to cook their food and they’re like, ‘No, nobody wants to eat my food.’ We change their mind about that, because we want them to know that their food is delicious, and that their skills are valuable and that their knowledge and their history is valuable.”

The dishes created by apprentices for takeout have been widely well-received by customers, and Nguyen enjoys eating them too. “I order meals every week; I’ve been exposed to so many different dishes and flavors that I never would have. And I’m an adventurous eater and I love to cook,” she says. “For instance, yesterday’s Family Meal was Honduran baleadas, which is a street food in Honduras that I’d never heard of.” While the apprentice was making baleadas, Project Feast’s chef instructor, Kausar Ahmed, noted these were the exact same ingredients for the Pakistani flatbread, parathas, that she makes. Nguyen relishes seeing those cross-cultural connections through food and the way the same ingredients show up in dishes from different parts of the world. “We have a lot of Latinx apprentices that come to our program and a lot of the ingredients they use are the same ingredients I use in Vietnamese cooking, but we make totally different foods.” For example, culantro (an herb with a similar taste, but different appearance, to cilantro) is a garnish she uses for phở that's also a key ingredient in salsa.

“I’ve really grown as a cook and as an eater since I’ve started here,” she says. One of her favorite discoveries has been Xawaash, a spice mix, from a Somali apprentice: “He made this chicken and rice dish, but with all these Xawaash spices from his childhood. I fell in love with that spice mix. I actually used it to make our turkey that year for Thanksgiving and it was delicious—and also the colors are really pretty.”

When it comes to food that Nguyen grew up with, her mom’s phở stands out: “That was my dad’s favorite, and to this day he says hers is the best,” she says, pointing out that her mom learned to cook after getting married, and that cooking meant something different after leaving Vietnam: “Food became memories. [My mom] really learned to cook in the U.S., which I think is pretty interesting, especially in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where there were not a lot of resources at the time.”

Nguyen, too, has had her own evolving relationship with Vietnamese food: “Growing up I didn’t appreciate the food. You know, I was an immigrant child and I wanted McDonalds. When we went out to have phở, I would demand McDonalds, so my parents would go pick up McDonalds and I’d be chomping on my burger while they’re eating their noodles,” she says. “Now that I have my own children, and I love cooking, there are certain dishes that I cook from my heritage.” One of her favorites is a spicy beef noodle dish from Central Vietnam called Bún Bò Huế.

“For me, growing up in an immigrant family, you know, low income, just a regular meal is called com, and it just refers to Vietnamese. It can refer to rice, it can refer to a meal,” says Nguyen. “Whenever I cook it now for my family, I will say, ‘We’re gonna have com tonight, which just means you sit down with some rice and with some dishes. There’s usually a protein dish and a vegetable dish. It’s very simple and that’s always a comforting meal.”

For Nguyen, cooking and sharing the food she loves with immigrants from all over the world while, in turn, helping them pursue their dreams with food is a great combination of everything she’s wanted to do—and she’s excited to grow Project Feast’s programs and facilities. A kitchen renovation is in the works to improve flow and allow the organization to accept more apprentices. Additionally, Project Feast is also working with Starbucks to start a barista program and add a coffee station to their services.

Though some food businesses by Project Feast alumni had to close down because of the pandemic, others have kept chugging along. Nguyen shouts out Ofelia Anorve, who runs Mamá Tila Catering & Events and is also part of local farmers markets, as well as Project Feast’s very own chef instructor, Kausar Ahmed, who’s launching her line of Karachi Kitchen chutneys and spices.

Whether or not the pandemic continues to persist, Nguyen is ready to grow and continue Project Feast’s programs and be an active part of supporting people resettling in the greater Seattle area from all over the globe: “We’re happy to have our own little corner where we can help immigrants and refugees pursue their passions for food and use food as a catalyst for change,” she says. “Because food is wonderful. There’s so much you can do with food.” By Nia Martin

She Made It

“I love to hike and take photos of wildflowers and incorporate them into my art,” says the artist and educator behind these nature-inspired cutting boards. Tap for details...


What to see or do this week/end

With Covid-19 variants like Delta still a risk, outdoor large event and indoor masking is in effect in the state of Washington—even if you are vaccinated. Protect the health and lives of your community and get vaccinated if you haven’t already. Below, we’ve highlighted some ways to support and engage with the community.

Fall means cozying up with books and movies—join Sistah SciFi Story Time on Oct. 23Levar Burton reads from local writer Nisi Shawl's book, 2043... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be), with Shawl doing a Q & A session afterwards. The book centers around African-descended USians finally obtaining reparations, underwater.

This year’s Seattle Queer Film Festival, Oct.14–24, is a hybrid 10-day extravaganza of screenings—which you can enjoy in-person throughout Seattle or virtually. See what's in store and get tickets

What's Up with White Women? Unpacking Sexism and White Privilege in Pursuit of Racial Justice, by Seattle authors Ilsa Govan and Tilman Smith, is dropping Oct. 19. The women discuss the book with facilitator Karena Hooks virtually at Town Hall, on the 21st. Get tickets here.

Love Mount Rainier? Nature artist Molly Hashimoto has created a beautiful book of watercolors celebrating the beloved national park. Stop by Cascadia Art Museum on Oct. 21 to catch Hashimoto’s talk on the park's natural history—plus get a signed copy of Mt. Rainier National Park: An Artist’s Tour.

Wine and food—say no more! Join food author and journalist, Kate Leahy, in-store at Book Larder on Oct. 20 to learn how to pair the two. Though not a hands-on class, expect to try wines and hearty bites. Note: proof of vaccination is required. 

Get in the Halloween spirit, and support local, by purchasing beautifully printed on-theme tees, sweats, totes and more from Jackalope Jane Varieties. Susie Schaeffer’s fun prints are having a 24-hour flash sale happening today, so don't delay! 
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