Launched in the Midst of the Pandemic, This Little Ethiopia Cafe Is Fostering Refugee Chefs

Opened in March, Flavors from Afar is serving up immigrants’ stories through food

It’s proven tough enough for established restaurants to survive under the current safer-at-home directive, which has eliminated in-house dining till at least May 15—but brand new restaurants have an even steeper hill to climb. These aren’t just high-profile, well-funded places like Sightglass Hollywood and Tartine Santa Monica. Cafe and catering service Flavors from Afar opened in Little Ethiopia on March 21, serving food made by former refugees and asylum seekers. The chef at the helm changes every two weeks; first up was Somali chef Malia Hamza, followed by Egyptian chef Mohammed Alsayes.

Flavors from Afar is an extension of the Tiyya Foundation, a non-profit that Meymuna Hussein-Cattan co-founded in 2010 with her mother, Owliya Dima, to aid refugee education and recreation efforts. Catering was a big part of the business model, and the COVID-19 crisis wiped out their events calendar, but Flavors from Afar continues to provide a lifeline to people in need through delivery and curbside pickup. The cafe helps fund the Tiyya Foundation and encourages immigrants to share highly personal culinary traditions while preparing them to open their own restaurants, if possible.

Hussein-Cattan and her family are refugees; her parents fled Ethiopia in 1975 due to civil unrest, met at a camp in Somalia, and eventually moved to Southern California. As a result of her family’s experience, she’s hardwired to help other forcibly displaced people. Flavors from Afar furthers that cause while sharing “stories of resilience.”

Home cooks who aspire to contribute to Flavors from Afar must go through a vetting process that has them present their concept and an array of dishes from their culture. They work with program instructor Jalen Bennett, previously with Eataly L.A., to refine their plates and menus for a restaurant setting. So far, he’s been impressed with the chefs he’s worked with, who he says “possess skill that rival some of the greatest of culinary minds.”

“Although they are home-taught chefs,” Hussein-Cattan adds, “the L.A. food culture benefits from being exposed to the various spices and flavors that are not easily accessible outside of immigrant homes.”

Chefs are giving all the equipment and ingredients they need to execute their menus. Rabbi Sarah Bassin from Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills fully equipped the kitchen. “All we require from them is their talent and a willingness to learn and improve,” Hussein-Cattan says.

Opening chef Malia Hamza was born in Medina, Somalia, as a member of the Barawa tribe, and escaped to Kenya due to Civil War before landing in Nashville in 1997. Her harrowing tale involves being married off at age 12 and moving to California to flee the man. She started as a Tiyya Foundation client and worked for their catering arm starting in early 2018 before landing with the café. She’s now a single mother of six children and Flavors from Afar allows her to provide for her family. She’s also always wanted to own her own restaurant, and given what she’s learned, that dream may become reality. So may a book about her life.

During my visit, they were spotlighting Belizean food, since Bennett’s parents emigrated from Belize City before raising him in L.A. Highlights included well-spiced fried rice piled with a bone-in chicken thigh and drumstick, earthy kidney beans, and thin-shaved plantains. Savory herb-flecked fritters, alternately crispy and puffy, came with spicy, chunky ground beef gravy.

Somalia and Belize are just the beginning in the café’s exploration of global flavors. Cairo native Mohammed Alsayes currently presides over the kitchen, serving dishes like roasted lamb with potatoes and koshari, Egyptian’s national dish, a mix of rice and pasta, in this case kissed with rose water and cardamom. Chefs from countries including Afghanistan, Guatemala, Kenya, and Venezuela are also slated to cook at Flavors from Afar in 2020.

During the pandemic, Flavors from Afar can’t capitalize on the more personal approach they envisioned. Hussein-Cattan said, “We planned to host tasting rooms, bodega shopping, house dining, and personal introductions to our chefs.”

Even though Flavors from Afar has been limited in terms of what it can offer, it continues to give. For every purchased meal, the restaurant donates a box of nonperishable food items to a family in need. The café celebrates international cuisines, but the stories behind their plates transcend borders and are making big impacts on talented immigrants who have adopted L.A. as their home.

Flavors from Afar, 1046 S. Fairfax Ave., Mid-Wilshire, 714-623-9420.

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