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New York’s League of Kitchens

Cooking up cross-cultural exchange.

When Angie Vargas welcomes cooking classes to her second-floor apartment in Queens, New York, she encourages them to treat her home as their own. She wants these strangers to leave as friends.

The vivacious thirtysomething is part of an innovative organization called the League of Kitchens, which pairs accomplished immigrant home cooks with foodies eager to learn from them. Participants can try their hand at traditional Indian, Nepali, Japanese, Lebanese—or even Uzbek—family recipes, in cozy home kitchens. In turn, instructors enjoy meaningful, well-paid work that rewards their skills and helps them integrate into their communities. The added bonus? It’s a pretty delicious way to make a living.

Vargas teaches six people at a time to whip up bold-flavoured Mexican fare like tostadas de tinga (spicy shredded chicken tostadas), enchiladas suizas (chicken and cheese enchiladas in tomatillo sauce), and arroz a la Mexicana (tomato rice), as her two-year-old son toddles around gleefully, certain these apron-clad guests have arrived solely to fuss over him.

Raised in the Monterrey, Mexico, near the Texas border, Vargas immigrated to America at 14, promptly getting a job as a nanny. She’s now been in the country for almost 20 years, having married a local mariachi musician at the age of 19. Vargas says the anti-immigrant climate these days is painful, and these feel-good, cross-cultural cooking classes are a bright spot for instructors and participants alike.

“It’s such a beautiful thing,” she says. “When you go to an immigrant’s house, you really get to see how they are, how they live. We are no different from you. We all have beautiful traditions that we love sharing. And you really feel that.” She adds: “We’re spreading love.”

League of Kitchens founder Lisa Gross says promoting cross-cultural awareness is the main focus of her business.

League of Kitchens founder Lisa Gross says promoting cross-cultural awareness is the main focus of her business. The child of a Korean mother and a Jewish-American father, Gross is an avid foodie; she fell in love with cooking in college and regretted never learning her late Korean grandmother’s recipes. Gross decided to found a company that would tap into the skills of other immigrant grandmothers in the city, and, in 2014, the League of Kitchens was born.

“These women are such amazing cooks, and amazing people,” Gross says. “It makes me really happy to have created a platform where these women can share their expertise with a much larger group of people.”

“Even though New York City is so diverse, most interactions with immigrants are service-based—you know, the guy at the bodega, the drycleaner, the waiter at the restaurant,” she says. “I think a really important aspect of what we do is we flip that conventional power dynamic. In this situation, it’s the immigrant who is the expert, the host, the one who has an opportunity to share their story.”

“Our participants learn something from a culinary perspective,” she adds, “but they also learn something about someone else’s experience, and some other part of the world. It’s really humanizing.”

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