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Taste of Home spotlights cultural cuisines in pop-up dinner events from refugee and immigrant chefs in the Charlottesville area

Taste of Home continues to celebrate diversity by hosting sustainable pick-up event with Khadija’s Kitchen most recently

<p>Taste of Home members stand with Chef Khadija behind an array of delicious Afghan cuisine.</p>

Taste of Home members stand with Chef Khadija behind an array of delicious Afghan cuisine.

Every semester, Taste of Home — a University contractually independent organization— aims to host immigrant or refugee chefs in pop-up dinners to showcase Charlottesville’s increasingly diverse community. Last Friday, they were able to host their first event in over a year. The CIO’s mission is simple, yet impactful. They aspire to promote cultural exchange between the greater Charlottesville community and University community through food made by immigrant and refugee chefs. 

“Food is part of our daily lives, but it’s also such an important part of our culture,” said Priscilla Yoon, events co-coordinator, Taste of Home member and second-year Batten student. “When you share your culture’s food with someone else, it's personal and shares a little about who you are and where you’re from.” 

Not only is Charlottesville home to a prominent foodie culture, it’s home to over 3,000 refugees from over 32 countries. For this reason, Taste of Home believes that the city’s diversity deserves to be celebrated. 

“[Charlottesville is] a very deceptively diverse place, and I want to do my part to help show it off so that people can come to appreciate it,” said Alex Tran, events co-coordinator, Taste of Home member and second-year College student. “I think [Taste of Home is] good for the exposure and just giving back to the community.”

Since its founding in 2018 by  Class of 2018 alumna Mayan Braude, the CIO has organized five pop-up dinners for the University and Charlottesville communities. The dinners have featured local chefs from various different cultures — Taste of Home has worked with Syrian chefs Heba and Nsreen Ghazoul and Guatemalan chef Maria Chavalan Sut among others. Their pop-up dinners have previously been hosted at Southern Crescent Gallery and Bar and Kitchen Catering and Events.  

The most recent event this past Friday spotlighted Khadija Hemmati — an Afghan chef who first immigrated to the United States in 2016 with her family. Upon her arrival in the U.S., Hemmati started a full-time job at University Dining Services in one of the University’s dining halls. While working, she quickly learned about the many farmer’s markets in the area and decided to start her own booth and eventually her own catering service. Her business — Khadija’s Kitchen — is based in her own kitchen, where she cooks Afghan food for her farmers market stalls and catering jobs. 

The event was a pick-up dinner, making it unique from past events. Prior to COVID-19, students could come to dinner to eat, chat and learn about the food they were enjoying in open and social settings. However, the pandemic and its ensuing challenges made this nature of gatherings difficult and pushed Taste of Home’s members to become creative in the planning of this semester’s event.

Students were asked to take their food to-go rather than casually dining together as they had before. They were also asked to bring their own tupperware, cutlery and cups to reduce food waste and make the event sustainable. 

“I’m happy that I was able to support a local chef in Charlottesville and also branch out and try new cuisine,” second-year College student Maria Parent said. “I think that events like these are really important to have and to attend because it widens our views of the world and helps us understand that there are so many cultures worth learning about, appreciating and protecting.” 

As these are all donation-based events, attendees are asked to donate a minimum of $5 to receive a meal, and donations for the recent pick-up dinner have been on a sliding scale to make events more accessible to University students. All proceeds from events go directly to the featured chefs to support their businesses. 

“We want to promote accessibility and enjoy the food that we're showcasing,” Yoon said. “We're all college students, so a $20 meal is not very cost-friendly. We want everyone to enjoy the event.”

Taste of Home currently has 16 active members, after dedicating the earlier half of this semester to recruiting new members. Upon joining, new members become involved in one of four committees based on interest — the community outreach team, the logistics team, the publicity team and the finances team, each with three, five, two and five people, respectively. To become a part of their initiative, interested students undergo an application process and short interview with existing members. 

“A lot of us are second years, so we haven't experienced an event before,” Tran said. “All the upperclassmen — the fourth years — are leaving, so we're trying to build the club from the ground up again.” 

Each team communicates over GroupMe or Slack to separately manage tasks related to their focus before coming together to put on their dinner events. 

“I really like the energy from all the people in the club,” Tran said. “Everyone's super into it… If there wasn't this specific common interest of wanting the event to happen, I could see this club being really awkward... because it’s online, but... it's been really good.”

Their most recent event was funded by a check the CIO received from one of the University’s secret societies — the Seven Society — that gives monetary donations to philanthropic initiatives such as Taste of Home’s events. 

“We were in need of funding for our events and had publicized via social media that we were fundraising,” said Eliza Fisher, events co-coordinator and graduate Arts and Sciences student. “Mysteriously, we received an email from the Seven Society directing us to come to Garden VII at 7:07 p.m., if I am remembering correctly. There, the secret society had left a basket with an extremely kind letter, as well as a check to support our work.”

In the past, they have used bake sales and social media donation bingo boards to raise money for their pop-up dinners. The check and the CIO’s own fundraising efforts have made it possible to hold events. 

“I have no idea how [the Seven Society] found out about us, but I am deeply grateful for their support,” Fisher said. “It has enabled us to fund and support a number of the talented people that have shared their cuisine for Taste of Home pop-up dinners.”

Their events are publicized on the CIO Instagram and Facebook pages. In the weeks leading up to events, those who are interested can RSVP and donate through the Taste of Home website, which gives more information about each pop-up and links the CIO’s venmo.    

Taste of Home’s dedication to boosting immigrant and refugee recipes allows their featured chefs to preserve and share their cultures in a community-centric way. Students who are interested in becoming involved can expect to see Taste of Home at the annual fall student activities fair.

“While watching the news, topics like racism and xenophobia seem almost inescapable,” Parent said. “Being able to attend this event and support chefs like Khadija gives me hope that we are closer to bridging these gaps in our society while also spotlighting and appreciating the people who deserve it most.”

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