Open Kitchens, Open Conversations

Open Kitchens ProjectPhoto courtesy of the Open Kitchens Project.

The Open Kitchens Project Aims to Promote Cultural Exchange Through Food

Paul Castiglione has spent much of his life thinking about what it means to belong to a community. His father grew up in an Italian immigrant family in upstate New York, which in the 1930s meant facing blatant discrimination. Castiglione was always aware of his father’s pain, he says.

“My father really struggled with being an immigrant,” Castiglione remembers. “On the one hand, I think he’s proud to be an Italian, on the other hand, I think there was a lot of pain, I think he felt really out of place. He’d tell stories about digging up dandelions in the school field and his friends making fun of him, and that was their dinner. They would go squirrel hunting. So it was a very different cultural experience than the kids’ that were in his neighborhood. So that helped forge how I think about the ‘outsider.’”

It’s not surprising that Castiglione offers up examples of food to show how his father experienced otherness, as Castiglione now runs a marketplace devoted to helping immigrant cooks share and celebrate their dishes, cultures, and stories.

The idea for the Open Kitchens Project began when Castiglione, a Somerville resident, was working with immigrants at a now-defunct nonprofit in Cambridge. From there, he began organizing home meal deliveries, where he would help the cooks get to and from a shared commercial kitchen so they could create dishes from their home countries of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Brazil.

The Open Kitchens Project, which got started in November, is a “community marketplace” akin to Sofar Sounds or Airbnb, according to Castiglione. It begins with a host, who goes onto the platform and provides details about their home, what types of conversations and food they’d like to have at the event, and how many people they can accommodate. They’re paired with one of the five cooks Castiglione works with, who hail from Iraq, Syria, Venezuela, and Ethiopia. Guests apply to attend the event, and like on Airbnb, all parties (the guests, the cooks, and the hosts) have ratings.

The guests get to meet the chefs and learn about their lives and cultures, according to Castiglione.

Meqdes Mesfin, one of the Open Kitchens Project cooks, emigrated from Ethiopia decades ago. She says she’s been drawn to the flexibility and creativity of entrepreneurship, and that she likes sharing Ethiopian dishes with people in part because of how much the cuisine can accommodate different dietary restrictions.

“Many of them wanted to know, ‘What’s this bread made from? What makes this one spicy? Do you use other meats? Things like that, and then about the altitude of the capital city [of Ethiopia],” Mesfin says of the discussions she had at her first Open Kitchens Project event.

The dinners also have a structured conversation component, which is run by a curator. The curators can be anyone from activists to writers to artists, and they offer questions based on their work that are meant to spark meaningful dialogue. Topics have included leadership, pursuing passions, and immigration.

For example, a curator from Agencia ALPHA—a nonprofit dedicated to helping Latino immigrants navigate social and legal spheres—posed a series of questions about community: What is community? How does community make you feel? Why would you leave that community?

“The conclusion was there are 63 million people in migration around the world today, and … they’ve had to make really difficult decisions to leave the culture and community that they love,” Castiglione explains.

The whole dinner and conversation experience takes about three hours, according to Castiglione. The Open Kitchens Project has hosted over a dozen events in Greater Boston.

Part of the appeal of the setup for cooks is that it works within the confines of strict home cooking laws. The cooks are classified as personal chefs, which means they’re not subject to the same kitchen requirements that they would be if they wanted to run a business out of their homes.

“They’re overly onerous for small-volume operations,” Castiglione explains. “The law is really intended for very large organizations, to ensure they create food that’s safe for the general public—things like commercial refrigeration, fire suppressant systems. It can take half a million dollars to build out a commercial kitchen. It’s a really high risk endeavor, you have a large up-front investment, food margins are extremely tight. My hope is to be able to lower the risk for people to be able to start food businesses.”

These rules get at something Mesfin underlines: “Sometimes there’s a narrative that develops … It’s not because you’re an immigrant that you need the help, it’s because you’re an entrepreneur. When the narrative includes a particular adjective such as ‘immigrant,’ used as an adjective, it just becomes this code for ‘They need that or else.’”

The feedback from guests so far has reinforced the notion that Open Kitchens creates a dynamic that can’t be found elsewhere, according to Castiglione.

“One couple said, ‘This is my husband’s birthday, and we were going to go to a nice restaurant, but we decided no, we would do this, and we wondered if we would have better memories from this than going to a nice restaurant,’” he says. “And that’s what ended up happening, like, ‘We’ll remember this for a really long time.’”

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This story originally appeared in the Voices of the City issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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