United We Eat

A cultural culinary experience for Missoula

Soft Landing Missoula's Program Manager, Beth Baker, is up to a lot of things. And I don't think the phrase, "too many cooks in the kitchen," really applies here. Beth is someone who wants to share the gemstones of talent, which in this case of United We Eat happens to be food inspired. 

How did United We Eat come to fruition? Was it a realization of underutilized talents that drove the decision?

United We Eat came about organically, when newly arrived families invited Soft Landing staff into their homes and gave them food to eat, or brought treats into the office to share. The food was amazing, and we asked, how can we share this food with a broader audience, and perhaps build relationships and community along the way?

The answer to that question grew into helping families sell food at the farmers markets, then to our popular Supper Clubs (currently on hiatus due to the pandemic), to our weekly take-home dinners, to where we are today, with four distinct food programs nested under the umbrella of United We Eat. These programs are UWE@home, our take-home meals program; virtual cooking classes, which we host roughly every other month; four dessert sales a year; and our most recent program, Grab & Go, which is a partnership with Masala Curry Restaurant, and grew from the recognition that demand for food far outstripped supply. Now, in addition to the 150 meals we sell with @home every week, we have food available at Masala all week in the cold case.

Our goals for United We Eat are three-fold: to provide supplemental income for our chefs, to share amazing authentic food with the community and build cultural bridges, and for the program to be an earned income opportunity for Soft Landing. 

I'm so eager to hear about how this system works. Who comes up with the menu and who decides who cooks each week? Tell me all the details of how this is orchestrated.

We work closely with chefs to plan a menu for UWE@home, starting with a taste test–one of my favorite parts of my job! A chef brings us a small sample of each item they want to cook, from meat and veggie entrees to an appetizer, salad or soup, and dessert. We sit down together, taste the food, talk about ingredients (often using a translation app, or lots of googling and pictures if there’s a language barrier), and discuss what it would take to recreate the food on a larger scale. 

Our chefs come to us with a wide range of experience, from chefs who have run their own restaurants for decades, to chefs who are excellent home cooks but who have never cooked for more than 20 people. We are there to ease the experience for them, to provide food safety and handling guidance, and to help plan and create a menu that is both authentic to the chef’s home culture but also understandable to an American palate. Sometimes that means including little notes with the menus we write so that folks know how to eat the ugali, for example, the Congolese porridge, with their hands, dipped into the stew. 

In terms of scheduling chefs to cook, we work hard to break down barriers to participation. That can look a lot of ways: sometimes it means scheduling a chef when she’s on break from school, or ensuring that a chef isn’t cooking during Ramadan so she can be home to celebrate with her family, or providing childcare for a breastfeeding mama, so her infant can be close by.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our fantastic team that supports chefs to actually create the meals each week—our Kitchen Manager, Katie Kirwan, our Kitchen Assistant, Rozan Shbib, and an amazing crew of dedicated volunteers who show up for shifts, rain or shine (or sleet or blizzard) and chop mountains of onions and scrub crusty rice pots. Their behind the scenes work is what makes the program run so smoothly.

Food is such a conversation starter. What do you think these meals say about our community?

Every week, we sell out of 150 to 175 meals for UWE@home in under an hour. Folks who buy our meals are both eager to taste food from around the world, as well as to support our chefs and their families. During the past two years, we’ve operated entirely under the shadow of the pandemic, and it’s been a testament to our amazing community that they’ve been steadfast throughout the most uncertain times, purchasing meals, coming in as volunteers, and supporting us in various fundraising campaigns to ensure our program keeps going.

During a time when we’ve largely stayed home, our program has offered ways for people to experience the world from their own homes. Our chefs are from Afghanistan and Guinea, Syria and Eritrea, Pakistan and Iraq, Jamaica, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We’ve heard from customers that our meals have sparked wide-ranging conversations at their dinner tables about history and culture, spice trades, and geopolitics. Some customers talk about using our meals as educational tools for their kids. What better way to learn than with food?

Our meals tell the stories of where our chefs have been, and this is a beautiful tapestry of places. Refugees often spend years displaced in camps before arriving in the US. Their food reflects these stories. One of our chefs is from Syria but spent years in Cairo before she arrived in Missoula. She makes amazing Egyptian dishes, as well as the traditional Syrian meals she learned from her mother. Cooking with UWE offers chefs a way to both spotlight their culinary skills, celebrate their cultures, and to tell stories, and I think the Missoula community is hungry both for the food and the stories.

What do you think the most rewarding part of United We Eat is? 

Seeing the connections that grow between our amazing chefs and the community. We have had folks drop off cards for the chef that say, “We are so lucky to have you in our community.” I’ve watched friendships grow between chefs and staff members, chefs and volunteers, and this community building work is at the heart of what United We Eat is, and what Soft Landing Missoula does. 

How does United We Eat help Softing Landing Missoula, or vice versa. 

United We Eat is an integral part of Soft Landing’s programming, and it’s an exciting way for the community to both support our newest neighbors while taking something tangible with them—the aromas and flavors of other places. We’ve found that at specific times, like when the Afghan evacuation happened last summer, there was an outpouring of community interest in helping, and United We Eat offers both volunteer opportunities to the community, as well as the chance to support our newest families by eating—such a great win-win! 

Where do the ingredients come from and is there a way for the community to help supply these?

We purchase ingredients from a variety of local and national food distributors. It’s funny you ask, as we’re working on a sponsorship program for the coming year. Stay tuned!

From reading the chef biographies, it seems cooking was a treasured hand-me-down from generation to generation, often with connectedness at the heart of the experience. Do you think these chefs hope to pass their love of cooking onto other community members?

Cooking has become a special way for our new neighbors to keep the memories of their home cultures and families alive, while also creating new traditions with new friends. Our chefs are delighted that the Missoula community is so excited to eat their food, and I love to watch our customers thank our chefs at food pick-ups on Tuesday nights—so many smiling faces beneath masks. I don’t know if chefs necessarily want to pass on their love of cooking to the community, but they are thrilled to share their home culture’s cuisine with their new community.

Where do you hope to see this program in five years?

We have a lot of dreams for United We Eat, and we’re really just starting out! Something that we’re really committed to is growing a program that’s guided by our newest neighbors. One of the ways we’re doing this is by having frequent conversations with our chefs about what their dreams are, and how we can help support those dreams. We’ve also hired Rozan Shbib, a member of the refugee community, as our kitchen assistant, and she’s been a great liaison to the community and a help to us as we plan. 

In five years, we would love to have our own kitchen space seven days a week (instead of the three days a week we currently have). This would allow us to venture into catering, and offer a small business incubator program for interested chefs, as well as potentially open our own restaurant staffed by refugee and immigrant chefs. The sky’s the limit! 

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