In Missoula, a new roving supper club is showcasing the culinary talent of refugees and offering a chance for locals to eat the world without leaving town. It’s called “United We Eat,” and it’s organized by Soft Landing Missoula, a non-profit that helps integrate refugees into the community.
On a Saturday morning at Masala, a popular Indian restaurant downtown, owner and head chef Theo Smith holds up a bag of flatbread and asks Ghalia Ahmad Fayz Almasri for her approval.
Almasri, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee, is the guest chef for the January supper club. This weekend, she’s calling the shots and coaching Smith on how to make specialties from her home country and region, like fatoush, babaghanouj and kebab, all dishes not ordinarily found on his menu.
When Soft Landing reached out to Smith and asked if he’d like to host a dinner, he jumped at the opportunity to temporarily surrender his kitchen and help Almasri create a special meal.
“From a chef’s point of view, learning a new cuisine, learning new recipes, new dishes: that’s one of the most exciting things that can happen,” he says.
What Smith soon learned was not to underestimate the amount of labor or steps involved in making seemingly simple Syrian dishes, or how easy Almasri made some techniques look. Smith watches with admiration as she deftly squeezes and twirls the dough for kibbeh, a type of croquette stuffed with meat.
"If you don’t get the pressure right, and you don’t get the perfect movement, you can develop holes in it," he explains. "When she was inspecting my kibbeh, it’s like 'nope, that’s not going to work, that’s not going to hold up in the fryer. Can’t use that one.'"
It helps, of course, if you’ve been perfecting those motions since the age of ten, and your mother taught you. But what’s harder is finding the right ingredients locally.
There are two Syrian families here, and some Iraqis, but no Arab market -- yet. So they sometimes drive all the way to Spokane to stock up on Middle Eastern pantry essentials (spices like za'atar and special kinds of bulgur wheat, for example) that are used in dishes like the kibbeh Almasri is hard at work on. Even so:
“This bulgur is soft bulgur," Almasri says.
"This is not the right bulgur. This is incorrect bulgur," adds Smith.
But is it still going to taste good?
"I hope!” Almasri laughs.
The next night, 50 or so lucky eaters get to find out.
The cozy dining room at Masala fills with people eager to try a taste of Syria. Tickets for the evening sold out in less than 24 hours.
For some attendees, like Pat Donnelly, the flavorful combinations of vegetables, nuts, rice, and spiced meats that Syria is known for are a new adventure for his taste buds.
“It’s a great way to experience what Syria might be through food," he says. "You’re still in Montana, but to have a little bit of Syria and understanding of that country at our doorstep, we’re really excited to be here.”
That energy seems contagious. The room simmers down as Chef Almasri welcomes everyone gathered and offers a blessing for health and happiness in Arabic.
“I am very happy because you are here," Almasri says. "And I hope everybody loves my food."
She’s a little nervous at first but turns out to be a natural at schmoozing, floating around to each table in her head-to-toe denim and white hijab studded with sparkles and making sure each and every guest is happy. She starts to relax as the affirmations flood in, like the smile that breaks over Nancy Cochran’s face as she sinks her teeth into the savory croquette appetizer.
“I haven’t eaten this kibbeh since 1969," Cochran says. "And this is true, authentic Syrian kibbeh. It’s wonderful, it brings it all back!”
Cochran spent time in Syria as a teenager, and the elaborate three-course meal was, of course, a draw. But for her and many others here tonight, so is the chef herself.
Cochran volunteers with Soft Landing and was assigned to help Almasri’s family settle in when they first arrived. They’ve become so close that Almasri and her husband call her their “American mom."
“I just adore them," Cochran says. "I think we’re so much richer here in Missoula because we have allowed refugees to come here and welcomed them. I really feel all the time that I give and they give back twofold, you know?”
Not everyone in western Montana feels that way about refugee resettlement. Some residents of the Flathead and Bitterroot valleys voiced vehement opposition when the founders of Soft Landing sought to re-open a branch of the International Rescue Committee. That’s the humanitarian aid group that provides support services to refugees. Syrian refugees were the biggest flashpoint.
But Almasri, her husband and their two young sons were the first Syrian family to be resettled in Missoula, just over a year ago. And she says so far, they haven’t faced any Islamophobia.
“When I'm walking in the street everybody tells me ‘Hello, hi, how are you?’ Very nice people here," she says. "I think this Missoula is the best place in the United States. Very friendly people. Very kind.”
Almasri has quickly developed a reputation as a talented cook and a generous spirit, sharing homemade meals with other refugee families, resettlement staff, volunteers, and new friends. That’s something she always did back home, too, not as a professional chef but as a young mom raising her two kids while her husband worked as a barber.
“Cooking for my family, for my friends. All the people love my food in Syria," she said. "Then I travel to Jordan four years. I make every day a big dish, or big food for my family. I love to cook!”
Mary Poole, the director of Soft Landing, says it was that kind of exchange with Almasri and other refugee clients that sparked the idea for the supper club.
“When you’re a family that’s forced to leave everything behind, those very special things that you can take with you, things that are kept in your heart and your head, oftentimes that is food" she says. "It’s an honor to be able to provide some sort of platform for people to share that now with us and bring a little bit of that tradition to Missoula.”
It’s also a way for Almasri and others to make some extra income. The host restaurant prices out the cost per plate, Soft Landing sets the ticket price and chefs take home the balance.
Almasri plans to send some of those earnings back to her big family, most of whom still live in war-torn Damascus.
“I need to save money and help my family now. Because now, very hard life in Syria,” she says.
With help from culinary professionals like Masala’s Theo Smith, Soft Landing has plans to launch bigger food-oriented programs aimed at helping motivated immigrants and refugees start their own independent food businesses.
Which is exactly what Ghalia Almasri hopes to do, and build a future she couldn’t imagine in Syria.
“My dream is to open a restaurant," she says. "And my mom come here and help me. Because my mom is a better cook than me!”
For now, Almasri can’t wait to send photos from the evening to her mother. Pictures of new friends, content customers, and lots of clean plates.