Stir Cooking Classes and Dinner Parties Highlight the Culture, Cuisine and Stories of Cincinnati Immigrants

The organization, from Kate Zaidan of Dean's Mediterranean, hopes to provide a platform for food-inspired cross-cultural connections

click to enlarge Stir has launched a pop-up at Dean’s Mediterranean that serves authentic Middle Eastern meals cooked by a chef-in-residence. Ibtisam Masto, who owns a catering business and is from Aleppo, Syria, was the chef behind the first pop-up. - PHOTO: EMMA STIEFEL
Photo: Emma Stiefel
Stir has launched a pop-up at Dean’s Mediterranean that serves authentic Middle Eastern meals cooked by a chef-in-residence. Ibtisam Masto, who owns a catering business and is from Aleppo, Syria, was the chef behind the first pop-up.

Watch the counter at Dean’s Mediterranean Imports for long enough and you’ll be surprised at how many different people pass by. The specialty store in Findlay Market is a place where those from myriad backgrounds and countries converge over a common bond: food. 

After standing behind this counter for years, owner Kate Zaidan realized that her shop was a catalyst for people to interact in new ways, conversing over spices and bottles of olive oil when they may have never spoken otherwise. 

“Findlay Market really provides such a diverse shopping experience,” she says. “People from different neighborhoods and cultures all come to get specialty ingredients. And they light up when they’re talking about their food, they’re willing to explain what they do. I couldn’t do this without the store.”

In 2016, she decided to create Stir, an organization that would provide a bigger platform for these types of food-inspired cross-cultural connections. A Project Grant from local philanthropic lab People’s Liberty gave Zaidan the kick-start she needed to host a series of six cooking classes in Findlay Kitchen. In each class, local cooks shared both their recipes and the stories behind them. 

Zaidan especially focused on cooks who are talented but often under-appreciated by the mainstream food scene. Her first class, Migration and Immigration in Cincinnati, paired German and Central American immigrants to make strudel and tortillas together. Another class featured the head chef at Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, who advised participants on how to create healthy, resourceful meals. 

The grant also allowed Zaidan to create a series of food videos with local storytelling company AfroChine Productions. The videos range from a half-hour investigation into the question “What is a dumpling?” to a five-minute feature on Moroccan tajine stews.

click to enlarge Stir/Dean’s Mediterranean pop-ups and events offer international cuisine and a chance to interact - PHOTO: EMMA STIEFEL
Photo: Emma Stiefel
Stir/Dean’s Mediterranean pop-ups and events offer international cuisine and a chance to interact

Since these initial offerings have concluded, Zaidan has shifted to hosting curated dinners with Stir, each featuring a local, often immigrant, cook. The first dinner highlighted Zaidan’s father, the “Dean” of Dean’s Mediterranean, who immigrated to Cincinnati from Lebanon over three decades ago. 

The most recent dinner was hosted by a family that had recently immigrated from Afghanistan; they cooked traditional recipes from the Central Asian country and the evening included “cuisine, culture and conversation.”

Stir has also launched a new pop-up held Friday through Sunday at Dean’s Mediterranean that serves authentic Middle Eastern meals cooked by a chef-in-residence. It’s part of Zaidan’s efforts to keep Stir’s programming financially accessible — food is available a la carte or as a full plate, with bread and dessert. Check Dean’s Facebook page for more information about each week’s event and chef.

The chef behind the first pop-up, which took place July 12, was Ibtisam Masto, who also owns a catering business. Masto is from Aleppo, Syria, but fled to neighboring Lebanon after the civil war broke out. It was there that she developed her culinary skills at a local market for refugees. When the UN Refugee Committee relocated Masto to Cincinnati, she decided to continue pursuing her culinary dreams in America. 

“I want people to see my food, to try it,” Masto says. “Maybe we’ll make some more after (the first pop-up), I hope.”

For her first pop-up, Masto served a combination of Syrian and Lebanese dishes. The offerings ranged from authentic versions of foods that most Americans are now familiar with — hummus and pita, chicken shawarma — to those that are harder to come by, like okra cooked in a seven spice sauce and moufataka, a rich Lebanese turmeric pudding eaten during the week before the Ramadan fast. 

Zaidan is proud of how Stir events have helped draw newly arrived immigrants like Masto into the Cincinnati community. She especially remembers working with a single mother who had fled Iraq with her son; he has autism and they came to Cincinnati to access health care. After Zaidan heard about the Iraqi bread the refugee mother was cooking in her home, she invited her to teach a cooking class. 

“We developed a relationship and got her connected to The Welcome Center (a refugee support organization in Camp Washington),” Zaidan says. “We helped get her connected to the larger social fabric of the city when she otherwise could have been pretty isolated.”

Stir has also helped longtime Cincinnati residents empathize with their new neighbors. Its dinners provide guests with an environment where they can openly ask questions and break down preconceptions. 

“We try to make it warm and comfortable,” Zaidan says. “People normally leave feeling really happy to have talked to someone new.”

Eventually, Zaidan hopes that more decision makers will take a seat at the Stir dinner table. Politics isn’t at the center of what Stir does, but she hopes that by adding to the conversation about what immigrants bring to Cincinnati, they can “make a small impact on the national conversation around huge, complex issues of migration.”


To learn more about upcoming Stir events visit stircookingclub.com, facebook.com/culturecusineconversation or facebook.com/deansmediterranean.



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