Cooking Up Chefs for Refugee Integration Effort
As the owner and operator of six thriving brick and mortar Saffron Valley Indian Restaurants in Salt Lake County, Lavanya Mahate knows the importance of a welcoming community. An immigrant from India in 2001, Mahate’s story is a testimonial of an entrepreneur who found economic success in Utah.
Now in her eighth year in the restaurant industry, Mahate describes Salt Lake City as a “vibrant community” and Utah “a progressive and collaborative state” with multiple organizations to help newcomers adapt to their adopted homeland. She also says Utahns appreciate international food flavors.
In addition to her mission to make Indian food mainstream through Saffron Valley, Mahate is also an active member of Salt Lake County’s New Americans Taskforce, a multisector of 100 community leaders tasked with developing strategies to make Salt Lake County more welcoming. She is doing her part by starting the nonprofit Saffron Kitchen culinary training program.
Empowering the Disempowered Through Free Cooking School
Keenly conscious of the outsider’s experience, Mahate’s nonprofit seeks to empower refugees, and disadvantaged and at-risk youth with greater economic opportunity. It offers tuition-free yearlong culinary training and hopes to produce qualified chefs and kitchen help for Salt Lake City’s burgeoning culinary scene.
Eligible applicants must be between the ages of 18-35 and have an interest in cooking. Enrollees receive culinary training from guest chefs and industry professionals, Mahate says. Instruction includes classical training, methods of preparation, a business workshop, paid internships, mentorship and job placement. Although she envisions an ethnically diverse student body, Saffron Kitchen’s culinary training is not limited to ethnic cooking.
Construction of Saffron Kitchen is expected to be completed in December at the Utah Refugee Education and Training Center, a partnership between Salt Lake Community College, Utah State University and the Utah Department of Workforce Services at SLCC’s Meadowbrook Campus. Mahate hopes to enroll her first cohort of 12 students beginning January 2019. Small class sizes will enable more one-on-one training.
Generous organizations and partners in the community have helped fund the building of the training kitchen. In addition to grants, Mahate envisions a self-sustainable program that generates revenue by hosting events and cooking classes for the community. Utah State University and Utah Community Action will also host culinary-focused education and employment classes for refugees in the Saffron Kitchen. For more information on how to apply, volunteer or donate visit saffronkitchen.org.
Inclusion as Key to Economic Prosperity
Salt Lake is making great strides integrating refugees and displaced persons. Welcoming America, a nonprofit group whose mission supports a more inclusive and diverse America, recently recognized Salt Lake County as the first county in the nation that is Welcoming Certified.
According to its website, this status affirms a commitment to policies, culture and resources that reflect principles of inclusion, creating communities that prosper because everyone feels welcome, including immigrants and refugees. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute’s April 2017 Refugee Fact Sheet also reveals that a majority of the approximately 60,000 refugees in Utah reside in Salt Lake County. They come from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union and Burma.