“The family meal sometimes is better than the meals you’re getting inside,” Nasser Jaber, co-founder of Migrant Kitchen says.
He’s speaking about the big batches of food prepared and shared by restaurant staff during off-peak hours, and specifically about those he recalls from a long-ago gig at a chain in Downtown Brooklyn, his first restaurant job in New York.
Jaber, who is originally from Palestine, says his coworkers at the time were from all over the world.
“There was always this exchange of food,” he says. Absent the cash for much food tourism, family meal was an opportunity to try myriad cuisines.
“So, how did I discover what Peruvian food is? How did I discover Colombian hot dogs or biryani rice, or poblano peppers with cheese, or tacos birria? It was really nice to kind of experience the culinary journey through the lens of migrant kitchen workers who are sharing their food.”
“My favorite food halls that I used to go to all the time, or food markets, were in Madrid and Lisbon. And I would go and get my favorite thing to eat, which I rarely can get here, which are razor clams. So, you’re in the market in Madrid, or Lisbon, and you go in, five euros and you’re getting these beautiful things, and you’re eating everywhere. There are all these stalls, it’s huge, every vendor, and they’re like, three euros here, five euros here, seven euros here, Jaber says.
“And you can stay for hours eating and drinking, eating and drinking. And when I was in Madrid in 2019, I think I spent the entire two days hopping between food halls and grabbing small bites. And what’s exceptional about the Time Out Market is that it really, really figured out and delivered on what real food halls look like in Europe, that they brought to the United States.”
The Migrant Kitchen’s residency this weekend is actually a pop-up of a pop-up presently operating with the cooperation of a couple of bars on Stone Street in Manhattan. It got going when Jaber linked up with his business partner Dan Dorado. While Dorado was working as the chef de cuisine at Ilili, a Lebanese restaurant in Nomad, Jaber had been running his own place on the Lower East Side, where his refugee dinner program ultimately fed thousands and garnered international attention.
“That’s what really got me into what impact in food looks like,” Jaber says.
The pair then rented a friend’s unused bar kitchen, and before too long they were catering for behemoth corporate clients. That was right before the pandemic, and before the biggest companies in the world started sending people home, if not laying them off.
“Once that was happening, we had a few WeWork locations and had almost 1,000 plates in our fridges by the time covid hit. And I had a friend that was working in the ER unit at Memorial Sloan, and they needed food because all the restaurants closed that night, on March 12th, March 14th, around that range. I had a lot, so I gave to the entire unit,” Jaber says.
“Then a friend of mine at Mount Sinai heard about it, so we all gave the entire ER unit at Mount Sinai. I took a couple of pictures and I had a journalist from MSNBC call and he was like, ‘Are you feeding healthcare workers?’.”
Television appearances followed, then more work to fight food insecurity, a partnership with disaster relief meals program World Central Kitchen, and millions of meals delivered to people in need.
“We’re not the celebrity chefs, we’re not the people that come from the Culinary Institute of America, so we were just a bunch of migrant workers who got together and started cooking for our community. And that quickly grew to deliver almost 3 million meals by October. So for the entire period of Covid we were feeding everyone,” Jaber says.
Eventually, the team started making plans for how The Migrant Kitchen would factor into NYC’s reopening. Donating a meal for every $12 spent was a given, then came the culinary considerations.
“I’m Palestinian, Dan is Mexican, and we were like, ‘what would it look like to include Arab-Latino cuisine together,’ Jaber says, noting that marrying the two is not new, and that they’ve been combined in sundry ways for many years.
So, we said, ‘ok, there is solidarity between those two groups.’ There’s solidarity in migration, there’s solidarity in struggle, there’s solidarity in food, so how can we mix these two flavors without making it too gimmicky’?
Those flavors manifested in The Migrant Kitchen’s chimichurri hummus, chicken tinga and slow roasted lamb empanadas, shawarma, tortas and freekeh salads.
“Freekeh is a super-grain, Jaber says. “It didn’t really catch a lot of attention in the United States because it’s very similar to “freaky.” People are like, ‘what the hell is freaky,’ it’s just not a thing. But in the Middle East that is our cultural answer to quinoa.”
These menu items are the product of collaborations that Jaber says are his favorite part of doing business.
“Menu development begins with conversation. We sit down, all of us are around a table, all the chefs are there of course. And then we talk about food. Just long, boring, intellectual, not intellectual conversations about food.”
For Jaber, keeping The Migrant team all in on those conversations is of paramount importance.
“I truly believe in mobility. I want the dishwasher to be able to come into this company and to be able to grow and become CEO.”
Hope for growth, an ethos of empowerment and having a chance to contribute to business-critical meetings can be paths to success, of course, but The Migrant Kitchen also pays its staff $25 an hour. (Minimum wage in NYC is $15.)
“If you want to be an active participant in this kind of change, and some people do it through social, some people do it through protesting, but I like to do it through economic action,” Jaber says. “Because the only way to really uplift people is through economic mobility.”
Being that it’s how they get people through the door, The Migrant Kitchen’s food, of course, is also key to Jaber’s intersecting missions. So those dishes, the ones that amount to a meal for someone in need for every $12 spent, are also designed to keep consumers coming back.
“We don't want to just have you come for the altruistic part of the mission, but also because the food is really, really good. So you’re getting twice the satisfaction. You’re getting a good meal, you’re having a great time, it’s delicious, it’s Instagrammable, all the things that you want, plus it helps someone else,” Jaber says.
“Some people are just there for the vibe and the food and that’s fine, too, because you don’t want to bombard them when they’re just trying to pick up a fried chicken sandwich. But our job as a company is to realize, ok there’s a demand for this chicken sandwich. Now, we could just be Popeyes, or we could actually have some impact and do all these altruistic things that we talk about, and do it in the background.”
Jaber has many ambitions for The Migrant Kitchen, and one unlocked achievement is enabling people to experience a bit of the culinary journey he set out on at that Downtown Brooklyn chain all those years ago. Only now, he’s bringing it to the front of the house at his restaurant’s Stone Street pop-up, and among the vendors at Time Out Market New York this weekend.
“You’re really getting some of the best quality products and it’s exciting for us to be there among the best of the best and showcase our food. At the same time, the immersive dining experience is the reason why people go to food halls,” Jaber says.
“It’s a lot of fun.”