This article is the first in our "CLE Means We: Advancing Equity & Inclusion in Cleveland" dedicated series, presented in partnership with Jumpstart, Inc., Greater Cleveland Partnership/The Commission on Economic Inclusion, YWCA of Greater Cleveland, and the Fund for Our Economic Future.
Though minority business owners comprise just 29 percent of the overall economy, minority restaurateurs make up 40 percent of that sector—with that number steadily rising. Cleveland’s own culinary scene has also made strides in supporting minority food business owners, with Latino Restaurant Week launching in 2017 and Quicken Loans Arena using its Launch Test Kitchen to help spotlight minority food entrepreneurs.
A new dinner series, Culture.CLE, is the newest local initiative aimed at bringing Cleveland’s ethnic restaurateurs to the forefront. A joint venture of BlossomCLE and Kitchen 216, the series launches tonight with a sold-out, traditional family-style dinner prepared by chef David Ina of Zaytoon Lebanese Kitchen. On the menu? Tabbulee, baba ganouj, kefta kabobs, falafel, and other traditional Lebanese dishes.
“Every month, we’re going to choose a different chef and feature a different culture,” explains Samantha Peddicord of BlossomCLE, a consulting group focused on helping organizations develop internationalization plans. “We want to teach about community and culture through cuisine.”
To that end, Peddicord has curated an upcoming lineup including Honduran chef Mariela Paz of Sabor Miami (April 30), Congolese refugee and amateur chef Esther Ngemba (May 21), and Sahar Rizvi of Indian cooking school Cleveland Masala (June). Along with the meal, each event will include an informal educational component designed to share background on the featured cuisine and its related community’s presence in Cleveland. For instance, at tonight's event, Ina's mom Ghadda will talk about her experiences as a Lebanese-born immigrant.
“It’s not going to be like a history lesson or lecture—we want it to be an interactive dialogue where people can ask questions,” says Peddicord. “Cleveland has just as many beautiful ethnic communities as some of the bigger cities, and while we [as a city] do appreciate many of them, we don’t realize how big these communities are locally and the ways we can learn from them.”
Peddicord adds that each of the featured chefs “has a really interesting story,” from Paz’s work as an artist “who talks about her history and culture through food and painting” to Ngemba’s advocacy work on Capitol Hill to help end human rights violations in the Congo. “It’s important to highlight how far some of these chefs have come,” says Peddicord. “Our hope is to help smaller chefs break into the wider Cleveland market and not just serve their immediate communities.”
Chef David InaFor his part, Zaytoon’s Ina is also hoping the Culture.CLE events will help encourage more adventurous palates around the city. Though the restaurant's Playhouse Square location attracts everyone from construction workers to CSU students to executives, Ina says that many of the customers who come in are “a little timid” about trying Zaytoon's brand of authentic Lebanese food.
“The biggest challenge is breaking that barrier and getting people to feel comfortable and open to trying different dishes and foods,” says Ina.
Peddicord was inspired to start the Culture.CLE series after her personal experience in an “Ethnic Eats” dinner club that solely focused on the food rather than the culture fueling it. “It was all about eating and drinking—we never talked about the history, culture, or people,” says Peddicord. “I’d be the dork at the end of the table talking about the history of porchetta.”
She recalls going to one Ethnic Eats dinner at a Guatemalan restaurant shortly after the Fuego volcano erupted in late 2018. “I’ve been to that region before, and it was hard to see how much the people were suffering,” says Peddicord, who has lived in three countries and visited more than 30 countries. “I wanted to know why we weren’t talking about ways we could help them.”
Enter the idea for Culture.CLE, which will take place at Kitchen 216 (an event space located at Cleveland Culinary Launch & Kitchen). Peddicord says the space was a “no-brainer” because of its 3,000-square-foot open kitchen, conducive to observation and conversation with the chef. The tricked-out kitchen will also open up new opportunities for many of the participating chefs, which is key to the effort.
“Most of the smaller ethnic restaurants I plan on working with don’t have the space for [an event like this],” says Peddicord. “Many of them are catering companies, food trucks, or [instructors of] in-home cooking classes.”
Along with the international dinner club, Culture.CLE is also hosting a monthly book club geared at exploring international books, which launched last August. Selections so far have included Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; April's book club meeting will feature Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Tonight's event sellout bodes well for Culture.CLE's momentum, and Peddicord hopes it will become a passport for Clevelanders' palates. "Why wait for vacation?" she says. "You don't have to pay baggage fees to support one of 100 local ethnic restaurants."
CLE Means We: Calls to Action
Three things you can do to advance equity and inclusion after reading this article
- Sign up for Culture.CLE's April dinner event and book club! More info here.