Six a.m. at Pioneer Park: Sarah Dak, Aluel Majok and their friends are re-creating a culinary community from the other side of the world. The food itself has also been on a journey, all over town.
The Sudanese women have been selling breakfast and lunch since early July at the downtown Farmers Market, and every week the scent of cinnamon lures more people. But as the operation grew, the women found themselves without a big enough space to prepare and store their food the night before market day.
Enter the Women's Business Center at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. Ze Min Xiao, the center's assistant director, started calling restaurateurs, asking if they had any extra kitchen space. Among the first to open her doors was Lynne Aoyama, owner of House of Bread at 2700 S. 2000 East. Majok and five or six other Sudanese women chop chicken, spinach and other ingredients for hours there on Friday night. "The next morning I can't tell they've ever been here," said Aoyama, who has donated some of her wheat loaves and dinner rolls to the Sudanese women's fledgling venture.
Still, Majok and company had nowhere to keep their food cold overnight.
Another Women's Business Center alumna stepped forward. Lara Kierstead, owner of the Singing Cricket Cafe at 673 E. Simpson Ave., opened her walk-in refrigerator and told the Sudanese cooks to bring on their coolers.
"I've been helped out by the Women's Business Center so many times," Kierstead said. "This was an easy way for me to give back."
Aoyama summed up the reason why she, like Kierstead, didn't hesitate to provide free space to the Sudanese chefs they had never met. "Well, they're women, of course," Aoyama said. "I knew they didn't have anywhere else to go,
and that they're trying to make a living doing this. It felt good to do something. And I'm excited they're doing so well."
The women are refugees from southern Sudan, and soon after arriving in Utah they had to find jobs to support families of three, four or more children. They work at American fast-food chains and airport snack counters. And this summer, they're rediscovering the taste of their own abilities, not only as chefs but as independent businesswomen.
Among the women helping Majok and her crew is one man, too: Steven Rosenberg, owner of Liberty Heights Fresh at 1242 S. 1100 East. He offered space in his walk-in cooler on Friday nights, plus transportation of the food to the farmers market. Rosenberg didn't seem to think that was any big deal, but he did emphasize his belief that Salt Lake City should be a place that welcomes newcomers.
"What makes this country great is its diversity. My grandparents and my great-grandparents came over here on a boat, a little less than a hundred years ago," he said. "This country has been great to my family. If I can help someone get started, if I can make this place a little easier to settle in, it's a privilege."
Edie Sidle and Sara Jordan, two International Rescue Committee staffers who work with the Sudanese women, said they never doubted the refugees' ability to make their market operation a success. As a girl grows up in the Sudanese culture, she learns to cook and cook well, always in collaboration with other women.
"They are passionate," said Jordan. At first she thought the women, who come from different tribes and regions, were arguing as they worked elbow to elbow in the tight space of their booth. But those heated exchanges are "just how they talk things through."
The Farmers Market crowd beats a path to the Sudanese cuisine, Sidle added. "So many people were asking if they have a restaurant. Salt Lake is definitely ready for African food."
Majok ran a restaurant in Sudan; she and the other women hope to open their own place in Salt Lake City after farmers market season ends. At an evening seminar at the International Rescue Committee office last week, both Kierstead and Xiao offered to help them develop a business plan. Though they looked exhausted — having worked a full day and made dinner for their families — the Sudanese women listened intently throughout the two-hour session.
Dak was positive about the group's experience so far. "We're enjoying it," she said, adding that the women are working well together and are proud of their cooking.
Majok was more critical. One of the dishes needs a more distinctive flavor, she said. And at last week's market, the women didn't have enough chicken to meet the crowd's demand. As for starting a restaurant, she knows these women aren't afraid of the long hours — but they are unfamiliar with U.S. tax laws. They wonder, too, whether they can predict which recipes will stay popular with the American public.
For now, however, the women are focused on dazzling the Farmers Market audience. They plan to sell recipe cards along with their fragrant dishes. And they may take Kierstead's advice about how to involve their customers in the improvement of their business. "Just say, 'We want to know what you think,' " Kierstead suggested. "Ask them, 'Do you like it really spicy? Is it the cinnamon you like?' "
For Jordan, there's a certain poetic justice in watching the Sudanese women work in the warm sun. They're surrounded by scores of customers, including many who are eager to tell their own stories of travels to Africa. "Seeing the women be who they are," she said, "is really inspiring."
Even two hours before the market opens at 8 a.m. and after what can't be all that many hours of sleep, the women bring a particular energy to the park. "They get there at 6 in their native dresses," Sidle said, "and sometimes they start singing."