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How a restaurant is helping diners think deeply about immigrant culture and food


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: A new restaurant in Boston traces the remarkable journey of immigrant food and celebrates the people who helped bring it to our tables.

Laura Barron-Lopez gives us a taste.

Kwasi Kwaa, Comfort Kitchen: Yes.

Laura Barron-Lopez: It is the rice and the spice that tell the story of chef Kwasi Kwaa's signature dish, jerk-roasted duck.

Kwasi Kwaa: The rice is a Caribbean dish, but a lot of the spices in the rice are very much transplants of Asia.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Prepared with passed-down cooking methods from around the globe, Kwaa calls it a history lesson a plate.

Kwasi Kwaa: Before we even create a dish, we're looking at the history first and foremost, before anything else.

Laura Barron-Lopez: We sat down with Kwaa at Comfort Kitchen, a new restaurant in Boston that he opened with fellow immigrant Biplaw Rai earlier this year.

Kwasi Kwaa: A lot of those ingredients have moved around through the world based on travel, immigration, whether voluntary or involuntary. So we're talking about human trade. We're talking about spice trade. We're talking about goods and commodities trade.

And there's so much culture tied to that, that those are the stories that we always want to not only highlight, but celebrate.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Storytelling is at the core of Comfort Kitchen, where customers can learn about the history of global migration through food.

Why do you think customers should care about the history of where their food comes from?

Biplaw Rai, Comfort Kitchen: We are all very much affected by colonization that happened hundreds of years ago. Oftentimes, it's used again against us.

But if we are more familiar with our history, our background, and the story, there's more similar struggles that we all go through. And I think that's important for us, is building empathy through food.

Laura Barron-Lopez: For Kwaa, who emigrated to the U.S. from Ghana in 1997, and Rai, who came from Nepal in 2002, it all starts with the menu.

Kwasi Kwaa: I want the food industry to respect Black and brown immigrant food.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Designed with the look and feel of a culinary magazine, customers can learn about okra's origins in Africa or that their yassa chicken is an example of single pot cooking that has sustained civilizations for centuries.

Kwasi Kwaa: If you're able to connect people, culture to the food, it makes it more meaningful. So we're not only looking to tell the stories of those ingredients and those cook methods, but we're looking to tell the stories of the folks that are behind those ingredients.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Like many other immigrants, the pair found an access point to America in the food industry, where they worked together in various jobs for more than a decade, including running pop-up restaurants during the pandemic.

But, in January, together with a local nonprofit, they finished converting this historic building once used by streetcar riders into a dining space.

Why did you both get involved in the food industry?


Kwasi Kwaa: Absolute necessity.

Biplaw Rai: Yes, personally, for -- I went to school for political science for undergrad. When I graduated, we had financial crisis in 2007-'8, so no jobs.

Went back to school, got my MBA. Another financial crisis in 2009. And, throughout these times, that has really helped me sustain life is restaurants and cafes and food service industry. That was the only industry that was actually giving job.

Kwasi Kwaa: Even though it is a skill -- specific skill set industry, it's also -- for most immigrants, it's like you grow up cooking at home anyway. So it's one of those that the transition is just very simple.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Their experiences working in the industry helped shape Comfort Kitchen, a fine dining establishment staffed by a team from nine different countries.

Biplaw Rai: A lot of people have preconceived notions about when they walk into an immigrant restaurant, it's to be cheap. It's fast casual. It's always in a neighborhood that's not nice. We are trying to do everything differently.

Laura Barron-Lopez: So, when people look at the plate, what do you want them to see?

Kwasi Kwaa: I want them to see...

Biplaw Rai: World peace.

Kwasi Kwaa: World peace.


Kwasi Kwaa: World peace. That's good. World peace, yes.

No, I want them to see we're not just telling the story of Comfort Kitchen as a restaurant. We're telling the story of Billy (ph), who comes in at 6:00 a.m. We're telling the story of Ama (ph), who comes in also at 6:00 a.m. Before that plate hits your table, there's a lot of hands that not only touch it, but care for it, right?

And those hands are tied to several livelihoods.

Laura Barron-Lopez: But while the food industry has been a lifeline for Kwaa and Rai, they believe much about it still needs to change, including the treatment of immigrants.

Biplaw Rai: Across America, restaurant industry is one of those industry which I often say it's the underbelly of United States. If you want to change immigration, you got to look into restaurant industry.

And, for us, that's been our mission, is to change that dynamic, have immigrants in the front and center, talk about our food, talk about why immigrant food is also American food.

Laura Barron-Lopez: So far, it's a formula that's working.

Biplaw Rai: Awesome. Well, welcome back.

Laura Barron-Lopez: Tables are often incredibly hard to come by. And customers are leaving happy, including this one.

I could eat this rice all the time.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Laura Barron-Lopez in Boston.

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