In the wake of increased nationwide crackdowns on immigrant workers at restaurants, restaurants and chefs across New York are finding ways to both celebrate the varied foods that immigrants bring, as well as plant themselves as pro-immigrant businesses.
Most recently, Broadway actor Adam Kantor and Dinner Lab founder Brian Bordainick teamed up for Story Course, an event series that combines food and theater to spotlight immigrant chefs. It’s dinner with an interactive show, and each one is tailored specifically to the chef’s immigration story.
“We are essentially consuming migration stories on a daily basis without necessarily knowing it. If you know the story behind the food you’re eating, does it taste different? Can you be emotionally moved by a dish if you understand it in a narrative way?” Kantor says. “We wanted to explore these ideas of what it means to be an immigrant and an American and especially living in NYC, which is a city full of immigrant chefs.”
First up is Jae Jung, who until recently was a cook at Le Bernardin and will soon work the line at The NoMad. Jung emigrated from Korea in 2009 to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America before spending years cooking in Nashville and eventually returning to New York City. Her menu is an exploration of that journey, starting with a strictly Korean course and incorporating Southern and French elements as the courses — and her story — progress.
“It’s not just about eating. I’ve seen a lot of talented chefs have to go back to their country even if they don’t want to,” Jung says. “Yeah, of course I like to go out to eat something cool and delicious, but with this you have more understanding about why we have to learn from each other.”
Next up in the series is Behzad Jamshidi, a Persian cook at Gabriel Kreuther. But Story Course isn’t the only dinner exploring immigration in NYC; others include Displaced Dinners, run by and benefitting refugees, and a League of Kitchens dinner at the James Beard House, put on by an organization that trains immigrants to give cooking lessons in their homes.
Restaurants and bars have been getting involved in other ways, too. Now-closed cocktail bar Coup donated to various charities, including ones that benefit immigrants and refugees; a Park Slope restaurant printed a message on its receipts that read, “Immigrants make America great”; and activist groups like Rise and Resist are protesting at restaurants they believe support anti-immigration agendas.
In Brooklyn, nonprofit Churches United for Fair Housing is working with 10 different restaurants and bars who are interested in issues including immigration. Venue Elsewhere donates some money to the nonprofit specifically for immigration, while Bushwick restaurant Seawolf and Williamsburg restaurant Lodge have menu items that support the entire organization, which also tackles issues like affordable housing and youth programming, says Rob Solano, executive director for CUFFH.
Solano started organizing after local businesses reached out about how they can donate beyond the annual holiday donation season, he says. Restaurants don’t always know the most effective ways to be consistent in playing a role, and an easy way is to work with nonprofits like his. The idea is that for diners, it’s a way to know that the businesses they frequent care about issues such as immigration, he adds.
“You gotta eat anyway, you gotta drink anyway,” Solano says. “This is an opportunity to go somewhere that’s supporting [civic-minded efforts].”
These efforts from restaurants leave some diners feeling involved — at Story Course, when the story prompted it, the attendees collectively banged out drum rolls on the table or roared during Jung’s dinner, which focused greatly on the chef’s relationship with her “tiger mom.” According to several conversations at the meal, many were left feeling more invested in Jung, her story, and her food.