If you’ve never heard of Palestinian musakhan (braised chicken with sumac and caramelized onions) or Cambodian amok (catfish steamed in a savory coconut-based curry and topped with an egg), then you should take note. Those are the signature dishes at Reem’s and Nyum Bai, respectively, which are a pair of MEDA clients based on the 3300 block of 12th Street in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.
Both restaurateurs received MEDA Fondo Adelante loans — Reem’s for $100K and Nyum Bai for $50K — to build out their businesses. These monies were disbursed via MEDA’s Food Entrepreneur Loan Program in partnership with La Cocina, a nonprofit kitchen incubator which works to solve problems of equity in business ownership for women, immigrants and people of color. Access to capital is a critical piece of making food business dreams real, and MEDA and La Cocina together showcase a deep dedication to investing in these types of entrepreneurs — entrepreneurs who for far too long have been systematically denied opportunities to pursue their business dreams and, in turn, generate wealth and quality jobs for their communities.
The food world has definitely taken note, with these restaurants currently semifinalists for prestigious 2019 James Beard Awards: Reem Assil, of her eponymously named bakery, as “Best Chef: West (California, Nevada and Hawaii), and nominated in this category for the second year running; and Nyum Bai as “Best New Restaurant.”
The James Beard Foundation (JBF), based in New York City, has a mission is “to celebrate, nurture, and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable for everyone.” To be more inclusive, JBF has broadened its voting processes to be more balanced. According to an Oct. 2, 2018 New York Times article, JBF changed its rules and regulations to foster race and gender equity in the restaurant industry. The foundation will over time fill vacancies to change the makeup of its committees to reflect U.S. Census statistics.
When Reem Assil (photo, left) took a trip to Lebanon and Syria in 2010, she had a vision to recreate the Arab experience through food in the Bay Area, inspired by her Palestinian Syrian upbringing and her love for California ingredients. Explains Assil of the philosophy behind her menu: “Food as a vehicle for healing is at the center of everything here.” Justice and community are near and dear to Assil, being a former East Bay housing advocate, and evidenced by the business’ Fruitvale Village mural featuring Palestinian activist Rasmeah Odeh with a button showcasing the visage of Oscar Grant, the latter the unarmed young person of color who died a decade back when shot by a BART police officer on the platform across the street from the bakery.
Explains Assil, “Equally as, if not more important, than the food at Reem’s restaurants, is the sanctuary space I want to create for people to feel sense of ease and home when they walk through my doors. I want folks to literally feel the warmth of their freshly baked bread and connection to community. “
The coupling of delicious food and a community-centric space have quickly created a loyal clientele at Reem’s. There are tasty dips, perfect for dipping warm-from-the-oven flatbreads. Sumac-braised chicken with a kick. Wraps that will leave you longing for more.
Assil still heads to area farmers’ markets, and also operates a brick-and-mortar Jack London Square restaurant space called Dyafa, this enterprising chef having big plans for her business model. In total, she has already created over 50 jobs in the community.
While Cambodian specialties are the highlight of Nyum Bai chef/owner Nite Yun (photo, right), that restaurant also makes a political statement via the playing of hard-core 1960s psychedelic rock music from Southeast Asia. That’s because the dictators of the Khmer Rouge eradicated such music when the authoritarian government took control in the mid-1970s.
Nyum Bai (translated as “let’s eat”), opened a year ago with plenty on the menu to satisfy any appetite. Yun, born in a refugee camp, recreated her mother’s street food recipes, running the gamut from blistered eggplant spiced with peppercorns to caramelized pork belly to crispy rolls stuffed with taro.
Yun claims her food is, “Made with love. Made to share.” That is clear once you walk into this packed eatery.
Accolades have already been pouring in: Reem’s was on Food & Wine’s list of “Restaurants of the Year 2018,” while Nyum Bai was placed on Bon Appétit’s “America’s Best New Restaurants 2018” list. The acclaim these two restaurants are receiving is a testament to this country’s growing recognition of the ways in which immigrants have long shaped and transformed America’s rich culinary traditions.
Explains La Cocina Program Director Geetika Agrawal, “Women and people of color have long fueled the food industry without equal recognition or opportunities to lead. We at La Cocina work alongside these women every step of the way and have seen firsthand the power you unleash when one of those women finally takes a seat at the head of the table. We’re thrilled to see Reem and Nite finally receive recognition for the talent, vision and hustle they have had since day one.”
Echoes MEDA Director of Fondo Adelante Nathanial Owen, “We are deeply proud of these gifted and dedicated chefs. Reem’s and Nyum Bai are eateries that epitomize the immense talent and diverse culinary contributions that immigrants offer to our culture. Food is a bridge to other worlds.”
Do you have a small-business idea? Contact MEDA’s Business Development team for our free workshops, one-on-one coaching and technical assistance: (415) 282-3334 ext. 101; firstname.lastname@example.org.