By now you have likely heard of Karam Kitchen, a new Hamilton catering company translated to Generous Kitchen in Arabic. Founded by Brittani Farrington and Kim Kralt, Karam Kitchen is led by chefs Rawa’a Aloliwi, Dalal Al Zoubi, and Manahel Al Shareef, three Syrian newcomers to Hamilton. Karam Kitchen raised almost $17,500 from a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to launch their business, $11,000 over their target. Two hundred and forty seven backers showcased just how generous Hamilton can be – with 47% of their original goal reached in just 24 hours.
Welcoming refugees. Empowering women. Crafting delicacies. #KaramKitchen
I watched the ladies at work in their commercial kitchen space, The Kitchen Collective, as they tested out different bread varieties to offer on their menu. They are working to standardize their recipes, which already consist of mutabel (smoky eggplant dip), kabsa (chicken over cashew rice), kafta kabab (lamb and beef kabob) and yalangi (grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice). They also offer familiar dishes like tabouleh, falafel, and hummus. I walked in as the doughs were almost finished their half hour of rising. On their bread menu: sesame seed, cheese, ground beef, onion and tomato (pictured above), spinach and onion, and herb. Soon the ladies got their hands dirty, rolling and filling their pitas. The result was wonderful.
All fairly new to the city, Brittani moved to Hamilton two years ago and has experience in restaurant marketing. Kim’s background is in social work, but she gained professional cooking experience working for a catering company and managing a cafe over the last few years. She moved to Hamilton from B.C. about a year ago.
Rawa’a, 30, completed her university degree in environmental engineering before leaving Syria. She has three children and one on the way; her youngest born in a refugee camp in Jordan. Dalal, 45, was a teacher in Syria and is a mother of four. Manahel, 32, was a housekeeper. Her home was directly hit by a bomb in August, 2013 and her husband buried under the rubble. It was Manahel’s husband, Faisel, who Brittani first met before she was introduced to Manahel and their seven children.
Karam Kitchen allows the women to share a piece of their culture with Hamilton: food. Brittani says that while the women may not have always dreamed of becoming chefs, cooking is an occupation they can excel at without knowing the language well. While the venture pulls on the heartstrings (which is one reason it’s getting so much great press: The Spec, CBC, Saveur, Chatelaine), the food really is the star.
Food is a universal language — and a skill that can be practiced in any country. For the ladies who are still learning English, cooking is one way to show their gratitude — which is how the concept for Karam Kitchen began. Rawa’a, Dalal, and Manahel arrived as part of a group of ten families making the three-year journey from Syria to Jordan to Toronto to Hamilton. Brittani saw on Facebook that volunteers were needed to transport families from Toronto to Hamilton and offered to help.
When Brittani’s church wanted to host a welcome dinner for the newcomers in March, the women insisted on doing the cooking. The church provided the ingredients and the women cooked a feast for over 100 people. They are used to cooking large quantities at home, but didn’t expect the overwhelmingly positive reaction from Hamiltonians. The compliments prompted the ladies to ask — via Google Translate — “How do we sell our food in Canada?” A couple of months later, Brittani teamed up with Kim. They started crowdfunding late July.
Now the ladies are going to work and their husbands are going to school to learn English. “There is this role reversal where the women are all working before their husbands are, which is shattering some misconceptions,” explains Brittani. “It’s not that their husbands didn’t want them to work back home, but it could be dangerous. They are happy to see the Canadian work environment allows women to thrive.”
Their first gig is catering the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Syrian Newcomers on Thursday, September 8 in the Lister Block, where 25 people will get a first taste of the menu. Next steps include fulfilling Kickstarter rewards, organizing bread baking demonstrations at the Hamilton Farmer’s Market as part of NOSH Week, and booking catering orders, while continuing to adjust to the language barrier. They hope to hire more newcomers to Hamilton as their business grows.
“I’m friends with all these families and I hope we grow really quickly to employ more people,” says Brittani. While developing friendships, she realized how hospitable the Syrian food culture is. She recalls visiting the families just a week after they moved in and immediately being offered coffee, tea and snacks, despite their limited resources. “Food is definitely how they show generosity to everyone around them — and they are really, really good at it.”
Karam Kitchen is accepting catering orders by phone and email.
Update: March 2017
Karam Kitchen is currently undergoing a second crowdfunding campaign to purchase a delivery vehicle! Their Syrian chefs are incredible at cooking food for large gatherings, and with your help, they will be able to deliver their masterpieces to the audiences they deserve, while increasing the income potential for their chefs. Consider partnering to help them buy a van! (There’s some great perks involved!)