Leah Selim is a co-founder of Global Kitchen, a social enterprise that hosts immigrant-led cooking classes to promote cultural exchange and awareness through food. While working towards her Master’s in Food Systems at NYU, she became fascinated by how food, identity, environment and politics intersect, focusing her research on international food systems and sustainable agricultural practices. Leah currently works as an editorial consultant for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and holds a BA in English and Psychology from the University of Virginia.
Q. Tell us about Global Kitchen. What is it? How did it come to be?
Global Kitchen is a social enterprise that hosts immigrant-led cooking classes in the NYC area. We operate out of a rented commercial kitchen space in Midtown West and have held cooking classes featuring a number of cuisines, including Guyanese, Ethiopian, Senegalese, Malaysian, French, Filipino, and Bengali. It started as an idea that my co-founder and friend from graduate school, Ryan Brown, proposed at a social entrepreneurship class at Stern. His team (including the third co-founder, Pete Freeman) eventually won a business competition through the class, and they decided to pursue the idea further, which is where I came on board. We've been operating for a little over a year and average about 2-3 classes per month at this point, with the hopes of increasing the frequency and adding more instructors in the future.
Q: Though Global Kitchen is located in another neighborhood, how do you see the organization and the work it's doing impacting a community like Gowanus?
Like just about every neighborhood in New York City, Gowanus is racially and culturally diverse, with native New Yorkers, Americans, and immigrants living in the same areas. An organization like Global Kitchen connects people from different backgrounds through our classes, both in terms of the attendees and the chef instructors. A class like ours can introduce community members who may not have met otherwise (I've seen it happen in just about every class!). Global Kitchen also connects a smaller community, like Gowanus, to a larger community of immigrant diaspora groups living in the New York City area.
Q: What's been the reception to Global Kitchen so far?
We've had really positive feedback from everyone who has attended our classes, and several repeat customers. Our chef instructors are also always thrilled to be able to share the cuisine of their home countries with curious New Yorkers. It's been inspiring and incredibly fulfilling to see the reactions from both sides - it feels like we are tapping into a human connection that people were seeking but weren't sure where to find.
Q: In your talk, you'll be discussing using cooking & food as a tool to connect people from diverse backgrounds. How do you see this helping to inspire community in the long run?
As the world becomes more globalized, we're increasingly surrounded by people and cultures that are different from our own. Food can be used as a tool to both express ourselves and our backgrounds to other people, so that we can better understand each other and build friendships and connections. Sharing food is also a communal act that creates a space for the exchange of ideas, which is essential to helping communities grow.
Food can also inspire community among people of similar backgrounds who are now living in a culturally diverse landscape--people who may have immigrated from a different region who want to maintain a connection to their roots. In this case, sharing traditional food and cooking techniques can reinforce a common heritage among community members and strengthen their sense of identity.
Q: What does the future hold for Global Kitchen?
We of course would like to increase our number of classes and instructors to bring in more cuisines and customers. We are also interested in holding more larger-scale events, which we've done once before for our launch party last January. Otherwise, we are open to growing organically by responding to what our chefs and attendees are interested in seeing more of, and we'd like to expand our online content to reach a wider audience outside of New York.
Q: What's your favorite type of food? Favorite dish?
Most people think this is really weird, but I actually LOVE soups and stews more than anything else. My favorites are probably noodle soups from Southeast Asia (I love spicy, curried flavors) and I have a special place in my heart for pho -- which was ubiquitous in my hometown of Annandale, VA. I've still never tasted better pho than the cheap bowls I used to get in the unassuming Vietnamese restaurants dotting all of the suburban strip malls in Northern Virginia.