It seems everywhere you look in Charlottesville, restaurants offer countless meals — most Corner eateries serve up bar food, while the Downtown Mall hosts everything from sushi to burgers, and the Belmont area is where you take your visiting parents for a slightly more upscale meal.
The Charlottesville community is known for its abundance of restaurants — in 2013, the town was for most restaurants per capita. Quality is also heavily lauded, with some establishments boasting locally-sourced foods and natural ingredients. But what about food known for both its authenticity and social purpose? “Taste of Home: Charlottesville” seeks to fill this niche in the Charlottesville community.
While still working to obtain contracted independent organization status at the University, Taste of Home uses food to promote inclusivity and diversity within the community. It organizes pop-up dining experiences at Charlottesville restaurants that showcase the food of local refugee chefs who benefit from 100 percent of the proceeds. Pop-up dining attendees purchase tickets online or through social media avenues such as Facebook, and the refugee chefs get to keep the profits from the night.
Currently, the organization consists of six women, many of whom have parents who immigrated to the U.S. Mayan Braude, founder of Taste of Home and a class of 2018 University alumna, felt a call to serve the Charlottesville community following the August 2017 white supremacist protests. She was home in Hong Kong on summer break when she learned of the protests. Braude said she felt afraid to return to Grounds, concerned for her personal safety and the worrisome environment at the University and in Charlottesville.
Following the protests, Braude began researching xenophobia and found out Charlottesville is a popular resettlement site for many refugees. The idea of Taste of Home came to fruition when she connected xenophobia with the cultural and language barriers that exist in the United States for many immigrants and refugees. Braude realized that one commonality among individuals was an appreciation for good food — especially in a foodie town like Charlottesville — and believed she could use this as a tool for communication and cultural exchange.
“The ultimate goal behind Taste of Home: Charlottesville is to foster cultural exchange in our community,” Braude said in an email. “But the impact of this initiative is two pronged, as it empowers the refugee chefs we work with, while also celebrating diversity in Charlottesville.”
Braude worked with the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville, where she found refugees interested in participating.
“Caseworkers helped me learn the realities of the refugee situation and the various war-torn countries they hailed from,” Braude said. “My internet research paled in comparison to hearing first person accounts.”
Taste of Home debuted with its first pop-up in May 2018 at The Southern Crescent Gallery and Bar where two Syrian refugee chefs, Nsreen and Heba Ghazoul, prepared traditional Syrian dishes for the local community, University students and even faculty members.
One of the challenges in creating the first pop-up was communication between Braude and the Ghazouls. The group used photographs, Google Translate and Nsreen’s daughter to converse.
The second pop-up took place this fall when two sisters, Jamileh Amiri and Khadijah Emmati prepared an Afghani dinner for local community members which provided them with the opportunity to share their culture with Charlottesville. They both grew up in Iran and introduced the traditional dishes typically cooked at home in their culture. For them, cooking represents an everyday activity that brings people closer together.
“I really enjoyed this, and I love this kind of organization for new people in this country,” Amiri said. “It was so interesting to see how American people reacted to the food.”
While Taste of Home currently has only a few members, everyone involved is deeply passionate about the cause and determined to make an impact on the Charlottesville community. The group is looking to find others passionate about the cause to further develop the organization and obtain CIO status.
The past two pop-ups successfully introduced local Charlottesville residents to global cuisines they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to sample. Sarah Corning, co-director of Taste of Home, emphasized the number of repeat customers and positive feedback she received after these events with one attendee.
Going forward, Braude hopes to expand this organization across the United States and even beyond. The passing of Anthony Bourdain, a world-renowned traveler and chef, greatly affected both Braude and Corning, and they hope to carry on his legacy through Taste of Home. As a culinary expert and travel documentarian, he used food to immerse himself into cultures around the globe.
“My family watched his show religiously, and [Bourdain’s] mission is very prevalent in how we continue as an organization,” Corning said.
Stay tuned for the next pop-up coming Spring 2019.