Turning food passions into professions
Kaleidoscope Kitchen, a project of the Binghampton Development Corporation (BDC), has turned out some rockstar alumni over almost two years in operation.
Fayha Sakkan, Ibtisam “Ibti” Salih and Indra Sunuwar, the original chefs of Global Café in Crosstown Concourse, all went through the kitchen, as did the founding team of Inspire Community Café in Binghampton—Kristin Fox-Trautman, Charlena Branch, Jackie Chandler, Terrance Whitley and Tevin Whitley.
I sat down with Kaleidoscope’s operations manager, Emalea Rieckhoff, to see how they’re helping chefs get their unique food into the mouths of Memphians.
In 2017, the BDC received grant funding for a new project and looked to the community for input on how to put the money to work. “Our mission isn’t to come into a neighborhood and fix everything; it’s to be in the neighborhood and have the neighborhood come to us and say, ‘This is what we want to see happen,’” Emalea says.
Neighbors in Binghampton did just that. Specifically, a few immigrant and refugee women, like Ibti and Indra, became founding members of Kaleidoscope. “They said, ‘We want to share our food and share our culture, but we also want to make money,’” said Emalea.
To help them with the business side, Kaleidoscope created four main programs: low-cost kitchen rental, a culinary basics training course, small-business counseling, and coordination of food sales.
Emalea says that the kitchen rental is important for their tenants because food has to be prepared in a commercial kitchen, and there’s not a lot of incubator space in Memphis, especially space that’s affordable and accessible.
The program that gets the most interaction with the Kaleidoscope team is the 13-week culinary course, the latest of which started on May 20 as Kaleidoscope’s first-ever Spanish-only course. Kaleidoscope is also working on getting its course translated into Arabic.
“The goal of the curriculum is for them to take their passion for food and craft it to a professional level,” Emelea says. So far, there have been two previous courses and 18 graduates.
Abdinasir “Abdi” Bilaw has taken advantage of a lot of the opportunities that Kaleidoscope offers; he went through the culinary course, did catering out of the kitchen, and was even a part of the most recent Kaleidoscope Festival. The festival highlighted the work of Kaleidoscope entrepreneurs and featured performances that showcased the cultures represented in Binghampton. (There were three other Kaleidoscope chefs: Flora Elisa, Eneydi Lopez and Adrian Guess.)
Abdi is a refugee from Somalia; he came to Memphis by way of South Africa. “In South Africa, he did some work as a chef, so he had a culinary background to begin with,” Emalea says.
“But starting everything over and coming to a new place is really hard, especially when you didn’t necessarily speak the same language.”
Abdi learned a lot of English in South Africa, so we had no trouble talking about his experience with Kaleidoscope and his plans for the future. Abdi started cooking at a young age. “When I was young, I was helping my mom and my family,” he says. “Then my sister opened her own restaurant in Somalia, so I was helping my sister and she was showing me how to cook everything.”
When he came to Memphis in 2016, he kept cooking. Abdi worked at Felicia Suzanne’s, then Mama Gaia (now closed), and met other immigrants that told him about the BDC and Kaleidoscope Kitchen.
“They taught me recipes, temperatures,” he said.
“When I was in Africa, we weren’t using recipes. We were just guessing everything. But in the United States, you have to use a recipe.”
Emalea says a big part of the classes is learning how to write a recipe so you know your ingredient quantities and can accurately price your menu. It’s also important for keeping your food consistent. “Writing down that recipe is so pivotal in the life of a food company,” she says. “If you grow to a certain capacity, you might have to hire another chef and they’re going to have to learn it.”
In addition to writing recipes, chefs learn basic culinary terms, what it’s like to work in a professional kitchen, culinary techniques, pricing, menu creation and expectations of the food industry.
“It can be common in other cultures for time to be a different concept,” Emalea says. “If someone wanted a catering order and it’s 30 minutes late, you’re not getting paid.”
Another challenge is finding a balance between adaptation and not losing the chef’s identity. Concepts like time management and spice levels have to be carefully worked out with the entrepreneurs. Emalea says they’re told to look at what’s true to their passion and culture, and what needs to be adapted. Ultimately, decisions like how much to bring down the spiciness of a dish for the Memphis palate is up to the entrepreneurs themselves.
Emalea describes the mission of Kaleidoscope: “We want to provide minority entrepreneurs with the chance to create a successful food business.”
After tasting the food that’s coming from these chefs, seeing how their cultures are being shared with Memphis through their food, and getting stuffed too often at Global Café, I’d say the program is definitely a success.
Here’s where to find your next bite, served by a Kaleidoscope entrepreneur:
Christopher Hudson now serves as executive chef at Mahogany Memphis.
Adrian Guess, owner of Mouthful, is still incubating with Kaleidoscope as a caterer, but can be found as a line cook at Sage.
Allen Johnson is the owner of the new Fries Guys food truck in Memphis.
Andrewella Chism, owner of Healthy Urban Eats, sells her unique bean pies at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market.
You can also contact Kaleidoscope Kitchen to have one of the entrepreneurs like The Kitchen Guru, Abdi's Specialty or Flo's Kitchen cater your next event!
Aryanna Duhl Smith is a Memphis transplant and amateur blogger at Blossoming Brick, where she rants about food, cities and the environment. She can be found taking pictures of buildings, trees and her tea on IG. @blossomingbrick
Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais and his wife and kids. @chipchockley
Aryanna Duhl Smith is a Memphis transplant and amateur blogger at Blossoming Brick, where she rants about food, cities and the environment. She can be found taking pictures of buildings, trees and her tea on IG @blossomingbrick.