First came the League of Nations, an attempt to unite 20th Century superpowers in their desire for peace on the banks of a serene Swiss lake. The result: World War II. The second incarnation, this time based in frenetic New York and centered around a common passion for food, is much more likely to succeed. The emphasis here is not on failure, but creating an opportunity for “ordinary people [to] represent their culture.”
The League of Kitchens has been operating since February 2014 driven by founder Lisa Gross’ mission to “provide an immersive culinary adventure... where immigrants teach cooking workshops...and participants encounter a new culture, cuisine and neighborhood with every experience.” Currently eight female instructors, each hailing from diverse cultures ranging from Argentina to Afghanistan, welcome guests into their New York homes for experiences that go far beyond your average cookery class.
This is cultural immersion and an opportunity for the instructors to engage with their local community, itself culturally manifold, and find common ground through food. In a city, now the most ethnically-diverse on the planet, where in some boroughs like Queens 47% of the population is foreign-born, being able to cross the cultural divide through a common currency brings both practical and psychological advantages. First-generation immigrants and their families risk unwitting segregation from the pervading culture of their adopted home. In some instances a language barrier, age-gap or segregated gender roles can create barriers even when desiring the opposite. Like The League of Kitchens’ instructors, many women have fascinating stories to tell but traditionally lack the platform to share them.
This is a story Gross can attest to. Her grandmother, who emigrated to the US, had to assume the role of caregiver as a woman of her generation. Despite providing “amazing” cuisine that spoke of her proud heritage, she regretted not having the opportunity to create a life for herself outside the home. Gross’ mother and herself were instead encouraged to pursue an education rather than invest time laboring over pots and pans or domestic duties. As she grew older, Gross recognized much of what her grandmother knew might be lost to future generations. This led to the wider realization that every immigrant has a story to tell. She set to work fusing her experience managing participatory art projects and multi-cultural heritage (her father also hails from Hungarian-Jewish roots) to launch these socially-minded experiments in culinary diplomacy.
So, how does the concept work in practice? First, prospective instructors are given the opportunity to showcase their talents as home cooks. The bar is set high. Both sexes are welcome, however the response to date has been overwhelmingly from women. Gross stresses the importance for her team to not just be good, but “exceptional” cooks. That means bringing the heart of a culture and culinary tradition to life, showcasing less well-known techniques and ingredients lost even to restaurant chefs, an ability to build bridges with successive waves of eager students and most importantly, being comfortable with “telling their story”.
Forget League of Nations, this is the “American Idol” of home cooking. To find the first 6 instructors, Gross and her team interviewed 150 applicants. If a candidate looks to have the ability and enthusiasm to demonstrate each of these qualities, a rigorous 50-hour paid training ensues. This not only sets The League of Kitchens apart from their competitors, where no formal training or support is provided, but creates a platform for instructors to carve out businesses and names for themselves well into their 70s.
Experience and wisdom are celebrated here. Instructors are also invited to bi-monthly gatherings to share their experiences with fellow instructors, in turn creating a new community. The training also provides The League of Kitchens with an opportunity to rigorously test recipes, ingredients and sources. Each student is provided with a take-away kit filled with scientifically-tested recipes, grocer details and more to ensure successive home cooking experiences are as special, and successful, as the first.
Beyond building bridges between immigrants and the local community in New York, empowering these instructors creates understanding for the issues facing others in their home countries. This model can also inspire others outside America to follow suit, as in the recent example of Russian magazine “The Village.” There the goal is to enable fellow Russians, themselves comprised of a wide diaspora of cultures within a culture, to find common ground through food and table-talk. Given this new era of 21st Century war-mongering, The League of Kitchens is on a much-needed mission. After all, surely the world needs more bagels, bhajis and burgers than bombs?