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How the Spice Kitchen Gives Refugees New Opportunities

Justin Prather
Kamal and Geeta Sharma owners of Bhutan House Restaurant and graduates of Spice Kitchen. (Photo by Justin Prather | Daily Utah Chronicle)


Food is an international language. The S.P.I.C.E. Kitchen, affiliated with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and supported by Salt Lake County, works with vulnerable communities to provide opportunities for many to follow their passion of food. The “Spice” in Spice Kitchen stands for “Supporting the Pursuit of Innovative Culinary Entrepreneurs.” The Spice Kitchen Incubator services include access to a community cooking space, workshops, access to markets and industry-specific technical assistance. According to their website, they are “focused on creating opportunities for refugees and disadvantaged individuals. The goal is to improve the chances of start-up and early-stage businesses of growing into healthy, viable companies.” They have given many refugees and other less fortunate members of the community the chance to start their own catering business, food truck or restaurant.

The program was inspired by La Cocina in San Francisco and started in 2013. The application process takes about a month, followed by a four-to-six month incubation period, then an incubation period of six months to four years and, finally, graduation.

Vegetable and chicken chili momo.
(Photo by Justin Prather | Daily Utah Chronicle)

One of the participants in the program has worked hard to create a highly rated restaurant. The owner of Bhutan House found the Spice Kitchen after hearing about it from some friends who were also refugees. Not everyone who works with the Spice Kitchen becomes a success story, but after working with them, Chef Kamal was able to open his own restaurant in Sandy. He is the second chef affiliated with the Spice Kitchen in Salt Lake to be able to do so.

The owner and his wife first moved from Bhutan to Nepal because of religious persecution before coming to Utah. Kiki, one of their daughters, mentioned that she thinks that her father’s restaurant became successful “because he had the support of his family.” She and her sister both help out at the restaurant. She was excited when asked if she was from Nepal because most people assume she is from India. Kiki is taking a semester off from going to university to help out at her family’s restaurant. She is hoping to visit her home, Nepal, in the fall and then after returning, attend the University of Utah.

Another chef who was given the opportunity to pursue the passion of food with assistance from the Spice Kitchen is Mayan Mallah who is from Kurdistan and is a married mother of three girls. She was forced to leave her home and came to the United States on Nov. 11, 1996, because of the wars on the region. “Since we came to America, most of us worked hard to support our families and achieve what we had lost back home,” Mallah said. After learning English, she worked hard on her education by first finishing high school, then community college and finally she earned a Bachelor of Arts in international studies in the Spring 2017.

She started working at a share house which is a donation center for the Utah Refugee Connection. From there she found the Spice Kitchen. She said, “One of my leaders encouraged me to get the business license and build my own business because of the food that I was always taking with me and sharing with them. She guided me to apply at the Spice Kitchen. She came with me, and she was explaining to them how I am good in cooking and making delicious desserts. They accepted me and I worked with them for a year.” Besides her job at the Lincoln Family Center, cooking is a part of her daily life.

Ema Datshi, a Bhutanese curry from Bhutan House.
(Photo by Justin Prather | Daily Utah Chronicle)

Talking about her cooking, she said, “I enjoy baking with our traditional style, but I can’t get the supplies and the location that I live in is very small. Cooking skills are part of our life, and my family is the best cooks, but they don’t have a food business. We do like to invite people to test our food especially our Kurdish traditional food. Our food is very healthy, and we try to use organic ingredients to not lose the quality of food.” The catering business that she runs is called Zakho Kurdish Cuisine.

Many of the chefs that work with the Spice Kitchen have booths at different farmer’s markets or catering and food trucks can be scheduled by contacting the Spice Kitchen.

Every week, the Spice Kitchen has an event called Spice To Go that highlights one of the chefs in the program. Every Thursday, they provide a boxed meal with a specified menu that supports one of the chefs in the program. The meals can be picked up between 4:00 and 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at their location on 751 West 800 South, and orders must be placed on the previous Tuesday by noon.

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About the Contributor
Justin Prather, Sports Writer
Justin Prather is a sports writer.

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