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It all started when Seda Nak took her fiancé on a trip to Cambodia in 2012. It was the first time that her now-husband, Erik Bruner-Yang, would meet the extended family, including Nak’s grandmother, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
It was a high-stakes trip for the Toki Underground chef. Not only was he meeting the family for the first time, but Nak says the visit helped to define Maketto, the Cambodian and Taiwanese-inspired restaurant on H Street NE.
Nak says she now keeps one foot in D.C. and the other in Cambodia. Her family escaped the country following a period of civil war and conflict in the 1960s and ’70s. They resettled temporarily in a Thai refugee camp, where her older sister was born, then moved permanently to Arlington in 1981.
Cambodia and its poverty were a bit of a culture shock for Bruner-Yang, who was more accustomed to the “modern Asia” of his home country, Taiwan.
“Taipei, where I’m from, is so drastically different. Asians, specifically in America, get lumped into one big category, but culturally and food-wise, the countries are just so diverse,” Bruner-Yang says. “When we started working on Maketto, I was clearly heavily influenced by Seda’s family and Cambodia.”
That’s why the couple now sends their chefs abroad. While D.C. diners may recognize Maketto for dishes like Taiwanese fried chicken or Cambodian-style sausage, Nak says she wants the restaurant to also be a platform for cultural exchange and service.
This is just one example of how chefs travel the world in culinary exchanges. There are other programs, like the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership (run by The James Beard Foundation and the U.S. State Department) and Chefs’ Table (run by CARE). Last year, CARE sent three D.C. chefs—Victor Albisu, Mike Isabella, and Spike Mendelsohn—on a trip to Peru to meet with farmers growing quinoa and potatoes and raising guinea pigs to fight hunger in their communities.
“A lot of it is shining a light on the issue,” Albisu says. “Obviously, there are some who will say I’m doing this for the travel experience or publicity, but that’s a misconception. I do this because we have things to say as chefs, and people are listening.”
Chefs playing the role of diplomats is a relatively new phenomena. While some celebrity chefs now use their elevated status to advocate on larger issues, there’s also a corps of lesser-known chefs who are teaching culinary skills abroad.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I’m using my husband a little [to support her family’s home country],” Nak says. “But with his restaurant, we’ve been able to fundraise and send other staff to Cambodia.”
Most recently, they paid the way for Walter Lainez, a sous chef from Toki Underground, to travel to Siem Reap, in Northwest Cambodia. He taught nutritional cooking classes to mothers of preschool students, where congee (rice porridge) is a breakfast staple. Typically, it’s served with lots of sugar and MSG. Lainez, who has diabetes, taught the mothers to flavor the congee with healthier alternatives, like herbs and small amounts of salt.
The work is similar to that of Doctors Without Borders, but focused on food health. Bruner-Yang and Nak started their own project through Food For Thought, a program run by the nonprofit Caring for Cambodia. Bruner-Yang says he’s planning to send staff abroad twice yearly and maybe even start a chef exchange program at Maketto.
“We see this as a way to connect the dots,” he says. “And we’re sending our staff so that they understand and respect the food.”
While Nak and Bruner-Yang have sent chefs abroad largely under the radar, there’s a more vocal chef championing the idea.
“I want to be with my people!” yells José Andrés at his media handlers at the inaugural Landmark Music Festival for the National Mall, which featured food from his restaurant, Beefsteak. Andrés escapes and is quickly surrounded by young people demanding a José selfie. As he walks to find a beer, his groupies follow.
One woman from the crowd stops him in his tracks: “Thank you for all that you do at the kitchen,” she says. “I’m not talking about your restaurants. I’m talking about D.C. Central Kitchen.” It takes a second for the words to sink in, then Andrés responds with a slightly aggressive hug.
It’s this kind of attention that celebrity chef Andrés seems to be seeking.
He’s been a longtime supporter of D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit which aims to fight hunger and supply culinary job training in D.C. That work ultimately led him to start his own nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, in 2011. Andrés admits it’s ambitious, but he says he’s serious about ending world hunger. He’s setting up clean kitchens, small businesses, and teaching culinary skills as a way to empower people through food.
Almost four years in, the organization has only two full-time staff based in D.C. and two part-time staff based in Haiti. World Central Kitchen is partnering with several NGOs in countries like Haiti, Zambia, the Dominican Republic, and with Dog Tag Bakery in Georgetown. In the next few years, Andrés wants to expand to more countries, like Nicaragua and Cuba. Eventually, he says the organization will stand on its own as a nonprofit that manages food service contracts for NGOs. Right now, World Central Kitchen serves as a small partner contributing funding, supplies, and culinary training.
Haiti is where the organization’s biggest impact has been felt so far, says World Central Kitchen Executive Director Brian MacNair. It’s also a second home of sorts for Andrés. In November, he premiered a travel documentary advocating for tourism inside the country (Undiscovered Haiti with José Andrés aired on PBS). He also spent Thanksgiving there with his family, working and visiting World Central Kitchen projects, including the construction of a new seafood restaurant, Pwason Beni, which is located near and run by an orphanage.
World Central Kitchen is set apart by its ability to connect chefs to projects quickly, says MacNair. He’s built a volunteer network of more than 50 chefs, many of whom are from D.C. and travel with World Central Kitchen to teach culinary and food-safety skills. The organization funds the trips but requires network members to fundraise and donate their time.
There are a few celebrity chefs, like Anthony Bourdain, Carla Hall, and Andrew Zimmern, who advocate for World Central Kitchen, but MacNair says that many lesser-known chefs inside the network simply want to be put to work.
Erica Skolnik is one of them. She’s the founder of Frenchie’s, a bakery housed inside Bruner-Yang’s Maketto. Her day-to-day work focuses on making pastries, but for a week in August, she taught women how to bake bread in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital.
The opportunity to travel was a “fly by the seat of your pants” moment, she says. Initially, World Central Kitchen emailed the entire chef network in search of a lead baker for the project. Bruner-Yang forwarded the email to Skolnik, and a few weeks later, she was helping design a bakery, which has two gas stoves and a deck oven.
“Going into this project, I didn’t know a whole lot about Zambia,” Skolnik says. “The country is currently experiencing power shedding [mandatory and routine power outages], so they’re only guaranteed eight hours of power a day.”
The rolling power outages made it tough to teach the women how to bake three different kinds of bread in just five days, Skolnik says. “There were a few times when we used the mixer and the power shutdown. I freaked out,” she says. “But, the women improvised… They said, ‘Who cares if it’s 30 pounds of dough? We’ll mix it by hand.’”
But not all chefs can make the trip abroad. Casey Patten, co-founder of Taylor Gourmet, says he didn’t have the time to travel to Haiti but wanted to find a way to contribute as a member of the chef network.
“We’ve got ten stores to run, and I really don’t have the time to travel,” Patten says. “We wanted to figure out a way to contribute that also included my entire staff.”
So his team developed a Haitian hoagie and put it on the menu to raise funds for World Central Kitchen. In total, almost 2,000 hoagies were sold and $5,000 raised. Patten adapted a Haitian stew and served it on a roll. The Taylor Gourmet team had two weeks to design a sandwich, using ingredients largely not found on their menu. They also had to train staff to make griot and pikliz, a marinated braised pork shoulder that’s fried and served alongside a vinegar-based slaw.
It’s this kind of food challenge that Andrés says he wants to offer to more chefs.
“Food is at the heart of everything we do,” Andrés says. “With food, we are challenging and asking our chefs to make a global impact. And in the process, we’re living out a mission to expand food to everyone, everywhere.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery