Supporting local food economies, restaurants, and South Seattle neighbors, this program serves up more than just meals.
by Mark Van Streefkerk
In March 2020, restaurants were in trouble. Seattle was the U.S. epicenter of COVID-19, and a wave of shutdowns called for the immediate temporary closure of restaurants — some of which never reopened. Food scarcity was exacerbated as closures across all industries led to higher rates of unemployment. These disruptions also affected local farmers, many of whom lost half their major market channels instantly with the closures of schools and restaurants. In the South End, however, a handful of like-minded chefs made arguably one of the savviest pandemic pivots in the industry: They started the Seattle Kitchen Collective.
The Collective included chefs, restaurants, and pop-ups that made free takeout meals for anyone who needed them, no questions asked.
It might have seemed counterintuitive for a shuttered restaurant to start making free food, but not for Chef Melissa Miranda of Filipino restaurant Musang, who was the first to transform the Beacon Hill space into a community kitchen. Others in the Collective included Chef Tarik Abdullah’s Feed the People and Chef Kristi Brown’s That Brown Girl Cooks!. Meals were made possible through local producers donating food as well as community members directly giving money through Venmo.
As word got out about the Collective, the Seattle Good Business Network (SGBN) took note. Soon after, it formed Good Food Kitchens (GFK) to partner with these chefs and secure funding for their free meals. SGBN is a nonprofit that creates connections and inspires people to “buy, produce, and invest locally so that everyone has a meaningful stake in the local economy,” said Mariah DeLeo, Good Food Economy program manager.
GFK is within SGBN’s Good Food Economy program, a program that supports community-led businesses, reinvesting in the local, circular supply economy.
Early in the pandemic, SGBN began an online “Restaurants at Home” map to help people discover and support local restaurants during the shutdown, and it started tracking chefs and restaurants providing free community meals, like the Seattle Kitchen Collective. “We were so inspired by their service. Over time, we ended up tracking over 35 restaurants in Seattle who started operating similar community kitchens,” DeLeo said.
SGBN started fundraising for those making free community meals. And in October 2020, SGBN received a small grant that helped offset costs to purchase food from local farms for That Brown Girl Cooks!. Later, with fundraising through Seattle Restaurant Week (an SGBN promotion), King Conservation District, and other organizations, it was able to onboard and fund more partners. Securing consistent and sustainable funding also led to partnerships with organizations running similar free meal programs for their communities, like Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), Wasat, and the Food Innovation Network — the organization that operates Spice Bridge, a business incubator for Women of Color and immigrant food entrepreneurs.
SGBN’s GFK initiative pays restaurants and partners $10 per meal, and recipients in turn provide free meals to communities through individuals and organizations. Paying restaurants and chefs has helped these businesses stay afloat, while strengthening the local food economy and relieving food insecurity. GFK also helps provide resources to help restaurants source from local farmers, De Leo says.
Now, GFK supports over 40 restaurants, chefs, and caterers who provide free, culturally relevant meals to over 35 community organizations and directly to individuals, while sourcing from more than 25 local farms, like Friendly Hmong Farms, Sariwa Farm, and Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center.
“The ability of restaurants to serve in their own communities has allowed this program to serve culturally relevant foods that are often not available through other food assistance programs,” said DeLeo. “The fact that the meals are prepared are so helpful for those who don’t have the time, knowledge, equipment, or ability to cook with fresh foods. The quality of the meals affirms the dignity of each meal recipient, and reinforces that everyone deserves to eat well.”
GFK’s partners are mostly South End chefs and restaurants, like Theary Cambodian Foods, Chef Jalissa Culinary Co., and Kent-based nonprofit Project Feast. Each one fills an important role in nourishing the community and sharing the wealth of flavors and diversity in the South Seattle culinary scene.
Learn more about how you can find a meal, or support GFK’s work at its official website.
Theary Cambodian Foods
Chef Theary Ngeth is on a personal mission to preserve Khmer culture through her food at Theary Cambodian Foods. “I have no competition,” she said confidently. “I’m here to revive my culture.”
Ngeth and her family arrived in Seattle as refugees from the Khmer Rouge War. Her father, a Buddhist priest, became involved with a temple on Yesler Way. Eventually, Ngeth’s mother started cooking meals for friends and elders at the temple, which gradually expanded to others in the Khmer refugee community. More than just food, making meals was a way of gathering and coping in a new country.
Initially, Ngeth didn’t want anything to do with cooking, but years later, when her mother couldn’t cook anymore, a family friend reached out to Ngeth to ask if she could take on the mantle. She reluctantly accepted, acknowledging that cooking Cambodian food is “in my DNA.”
For those wondering if Khmer food is like Thai or Vietnamese food, she’s quick to offer some history: The Khmer empire was one of the largest and most ancient peoples in Southeast Asia. Over time, the area was “over-invaded, over-colonized, over-stolen, over-sacked … continuously,” Ngeth said. “[We’ve lost] a lot of our treasure, our rich resources. We’ve been colonized, sacked. We’re not only land-robbed, but culturally robbed, food-robbed. It’s just history.”
Ingredients for Khmer food go back to ancient times, ingredients that not only have complex flavors but are also medicinal. Kroeung is the name for a common base for Cambodian foods: “Lemongrass, turmeric for color, garlic, galangal, kaffir leaf — five components we use, fresh. All those components are made into a paste. The whole room will have that aroma,” Ngeth explained.
At Spice Bridge, Ngeth makes noodle dishes, coconut lemongrass chicken, oxtail soup, and much more. The combo plate and stuffed chicken wing are popular selections.
For those trying Cambodian food for the first time, Ngeth said, “expect the unexpected and respect the unexpected. It’s a cultural food that might not be what [you’re] expecting. Come in with no expectations and just experience the flavors.”
With funding from GFK, Ngeth provides 54 meals per week for Cambodian seniors who offer high praise for her food. One time, Ngeth had a special request for rice congee, something she didn’t typically make, but she made a batch from memory based on her mother’s cooking. One recipient told Ngeth, “The first bite I took, I remembered the very first time I had this dish in Cambodia before the war.”
“That’s where the value comes in. I’m humbled,” Ngeth said. “It’s crazy how one spoonful can take them all the way back before the war.”
Chef Jalissa Culinary Co.
Working out of Spice Bridge’s commissary kitchen, Chef Jalissa Horton brings her inspired comfort foods to farmers markets, cooking classes, and special events throughout Seattle. Born in Rainier Beach and raised in Federal Way, Horton’s passion for cooking runs in the family. Her catering company is an ode to the legacy of her grandparents. “Our food is rooted in love and history and culture,” she said.
Horton found her way to the kitchen at 10 years old, learning how to make breakfast, “because I honestly didn’t like cereal,” she laughed. “When I turned 13 is when I kind of decided I was going to do that for a living. We lived in his house in Auburn and I used to turn it into a supper club on the weekends.”
Horton followed her passion to culinary school at Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales University, and Italy’s Florence University of the Arts. She started a catering business on the side while she worked in the industry and finished school. In 2019, she went full time with her business, popping up at Pike Place Market, the Delridge Farmers Market, Marymoor Park, and more.
Notable past creations were jerk chicken tostadas with chimichurri sauce, and Moroccan chickpea stew. “Because of my travel studies, I like to take what I know and love and infuse it with different flavors to bring different flavor profiles,” she said. “But definitely it’s rooted in our African American heritage. I love collard greens, I love macaroni and cheese. I love all that, but I love to take it to another level.”
Since 2020, Horton has been working with the Food Innovation Network to distribute free meals to different community partners. However, her work making free meals for SHAG Senior Housing in Federal Way is her own initiative, with direct funding by GFK. Every week, she makes 100 meals for SHAG Senior Housing in Federal Way. Next month, Horton is planning on scaling to 200 meals per week. While the senior housing has a community pantry, Horton’s free meals meet a need for those who aren’t able to cook.
“One person had said to us a few weeks ago that there’s nothing like this in Federal Way,” she said. “It’s really been a blessing. This is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my business.”
Expanding on the free meal program, Horton has been working with DeLeo on a free food vending machine. “We want to place it either at one of our senior housing [centers] or just wherever there’s a community in need,” she said.
This year, Horton plans on starting a YouTube cooking channel. Stay up to date with Horton’s upcoming events, farmers markets, and catering services at her website and Instagram.
Project Feast provides pathways for refugees and immigrants into the food industry, as well as a platform for them to share their cultures through food. Founded in 2013, the Kent-based nonprofit offers a culinary skills apprenticeship program that includes both classroom and kitchen training, as well as ESL lessons. Attendees develop the skills necessary to work in the food industry, or start a food business of their own through hands-on training in Project Feast’s catering program, where they prepare dishes by current and former apprentices.
Project Feast also operates Ubuntu Street Café in old-town Kent. Temporarily closed due to pandemic precautions, the goal is to reopen the café this year. Ubuntu is staffed by Project Feast’s kitchen apprentices, who benefit from hands-on experience while cooking dishes from their own cultures.
“One of our main missions is to show them that there’s value in their food,” said Project Feast Executive Director Van Nguyen, who hails from a refugee family herself. “We’ve had apprentices and potential apprentices come to us and say, ‘I want to learn how to cook American food.’ … But, you know, we don’t do that. [We say,] ‘We want to cook your food. … You have great knowledge and such wonderful culinary heritage.’”
“Sometimes it takes a little convincing,” she said. “They come from a different culture and, yes, they love their food, but they don’t trust that their food will be marketable to another community. And so that’s why the whole café is just so wonderful.”
During the pandemic, Project Feast launched its own community meals program, providing free meals to Communities In Schools of Kent, KentHOPE Day Center and Shelter, West Seattle Food Bank, and, last year, the International Rescue Committee. “We provided meals to newly settled Afghan refugees who were staying in King County hotels during the transition period,” Nguyen said. During that time, Project Feast delivered 100 meals a week to Afghan refugees.
“We’ve been working with [GFK] for almost two years now. They’re amazing and they have been very supportive of us,” Nguyen said. “Honestly, we could not do the work we do with our community meals if it wasn’t for their help in finding funding and finding connections with local purveyors.”
Looking to the future, Project Feast is hoping to open a second café location in Kent focused on coffee and barista training, with some grab-and-go food options.
For more about Project Feast’s catering services and news, visit its website.
This article is part of a paid partnership with Good Food Kitchens.
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.
📸 Featured Image: Chef Theary Ngeth is on a mission to revive Khmer culture and food. You can experience her food at Spice Bridge Wednesday through Saturday. (Photo: Jaidev Vella)
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