The University of Denver Gives Refugees a Culinary Platform

Persian flavors on Italian polenta at the University of Denver's recent Conflict Kitchen dinner.EXPAND
Persian flavors on Italian polenta at the University of Denver's recent Conflict Kitchen dinner.
Mark Antonation
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Chef Hossein Zaré doesn't have much name recognition in Denver, but his rise to success in San Francisco was well documented. The Iranian refugee started as a dishwasher and busboy at the Fly Trap — an Italian restaurant with a history dating back more than a century — in the late 1980s and eventually became the executive chef and owner, adding Persian influences to the menu and revitalizing the Fly Trap's reputation as a top dining destination.

Zaré, known as "Hoss" among his culinary peers, came to Denver on Monday, October 29, to kick off a new dinner series at the University of Denver and showcase the university's commitment to helping other refugees gain job skills and assimilate into life in a new city. Dubbed Conflict Kitchen, the series is a joint effort of DU's Josef Korbel School for International Studies and its Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management, supported by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

Although Zaré initially pursued an education in biochemistry in America, he found a real home in hospitality when he landed at the Fly Trap. As he recounted during the dinner, his cooking skills were noticed by management at the time, so he received mentoring help and earned promotions until he rose to the top. Since then, he has given similar opportunities to other newcomers to the country, including chef Jose Hernandez, a Salvadoran whose start at the Fly Trap mirrored that of the Iranian chef, and who took over the kitchen there after Zaré recently sold the restaurant in order to dedicate himself to introducing more Persian cuisine to America.

Black lentils and shrimp at the Conflict Kitchen dinner.EXPAND
Black lentils and shrimp at the Conflict Kitchen dinner.
Mark Antonation

The Korbel School's acting dean, Pardis Mahdavi, says the idea for Conflict Kitchen came from a restaurant of the same name in Pittsburgh that changes its menu regularly to serve food from areas of the world in conflict. The DU school's cultural diplomacy program typically focuses on arts, music and dance as ways to bridge the gap between cultures, she notes, but food is also an important part of coming together. "I'm an anthropologist by training," Mahdavi explains, "and so it's part of my mission to build toward peace. Food is a great connector; it's a great window into 'the other.'"

That sense of connection was clear at the first Conflict Kitchen dinner, served in a sanctuary-like room — complete with vaulted ceilings and large windows looking into a verdant courtyard — inside DU's Sie International Relations Complex. In a presentation during the meal, the chef explained his passion for using food as a way to bring people together and to dispel fear of other cultures. "Food is a weapon," he said. "We use food to get to people's hearts."

Zaré wasn't the only refugee in the kitchen; he had help from two students training in food safety and hospitality at the Fritz Knoebel School. One came to the U.S. from Afghanistan and the other was from Laos, and together they presented Zaré's Persian-tinged Mediterranean dishes, including meatballs glazed with pomegranate molasses, black lentils spiced with green chiles, polenta with two different Persian sauces, and cucumber-lime panna cotta. Zaré's love of Italian cooking came from his decades at the Fly Trap, he told diners, but each plate combined those familiar flavors and textures with distinct notes from his home country.

Zaré left Iran more than 35 years ago, but still has many family members there. He recently returned to the country for the first time to reconnect and to help build a school for students with disabilities. Recounting his time in Iran, his voice grew quiet and he fought back tears as he described the oppression and violence that caused him to leave and eventually led to his parents' murders in 2007. But he also pointed out that the people of Iran are among the friendliest in the world and bear no animosity toward Americans. It's governments that are primarily responsible for spreading fear and hatred around the globe, he said.

The first dinner in the Conflict Kitchen series was a private event, but Mahdavi says that upcoming dinners will be open to the public (though seating is extremely limited). The next event will combine the culinary offerings of a chef from North Korea and one from South Korea, served while the two describe their experiences and cultural relations on the Korean peninsula. For other dinners, the school plans to invite chefs from Central America (possibly Honduras or El Salvador) and sub-Saharan Africa.

DU students can take six classes (three required and three elective) to earn a certificate in cultural diplomacy through Korbel, which can then be combined with other certificate programs that go toward a master's degree. The Conflict Kitchen series is only a small part of a program that focuses not on politics, but on the creative side of world cultures. For example, the hospitality and international studies programs have also combined to run Beans Cafe, a coffee shop with two locations on the DU campus. Beginning January 1, 2019, Beans will be run entirely by refugees, adding to the cafe's mission to "provide a place for connections, laughter and discovery."

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