Ingrid Hoffmann knows what it's like to be an immigrant in a new country. You wouldn't know it by her fluent American English and her infectiously sunny disposition, but the gorgeous superstar food celebrity, who hails from Colombia, remembers vividly the challenges of fitting in.
"When I first came to America, I was called a spic."
Which is why Hoffmann, an author and host of three shows in English and Spanish, felt drawn to the modern-day plight of Syrian women refugees trying to adapt to their new life in the United States.
"I was reading an article about the Syrian refugees and these secret supper clubs, which I had never heard of. I decided to contact the supper club to see what it was about and ended up coming across something very interesting, a model I felt was great on many levels."
Hoffmann is referring to Zaytouna, the Miami-based organization dedicated to helping women from Syria resettle in South Florida by providing jobs for them in the kitchen. The company, which began preparing packaged Middle Eastern food for sale, experienced growing success when it began offering secret supper clubs, a social dining experience hosted in someone's home. Although the refugees are not trained chefs, they hail from a culture where cooking is part of their daily life. Hoffmann decided to attend one and was instantly hooked.
"It was an absolutely amazing feast!" she exclaims. Beyond enjoying the exquisitely prepared meal, guests were introduced to eye-opening firsthand tales of the refugees' struggles. "Some of the ladies tell their story with a translator. It was quite moving and fascinating, particularly with our political climate where there's sort of a resistance. People tend to think we're letting all the Muslim people in, just like that. That's just not true — it takes years and years. Most of them have been in camps."
Hoffmann left the dinner changed, knowing she wanted to find a way to incorporate her charisma and celebrity reach to promote this very important social event.
"I contacted Lee Schrager," Hoffmann says of the founder of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. She made her pitch, emphasizing such an event would be a unique addition to the festival. Less than a week later, he called her back announcing that superstar chef Alon Shaya had approached him with the same idea but featuring the Denver-based Comal Heritage Food Incubator. Comal was founded to help Mexican immigrants using the same model, but with the influx of Syrian refugees in Colorado, the organization transitioned to include Syrian cuisine too.
They decided to merge both concepts into one event, the first of its kind at SOBEWFF, called Women of Syria Dinner, hosted by Hoffman and Shaya.
Hoffman is thrilled with the collaboration.
"The message is the same: We are highlighting the need and these amazing organizations, as well as women who are part of a productive workforce," she says. "Alon is considered among the top five new best chefs in America and has a great heart."
The women, who are not professional chefs, will work with Shaya and Miami chef Aaron Dreilinger.
"This is going to be a world-class meal," Hoffmann says. "We have the hands of these wonderful women with such great heritage of flavor and food already."
The menu includes dishes such as shakriya lamb (spiced lamb shank with toasted almond, yogurt, and sultana rice pilaf) and Bedouin-braised chicken with red rice, walnuts, lentils, and preserved lemon. Vegetarian specialties will also be served. Ardi shok (grilled long-stem artichokes with pearl onions, heirloom carrots, and lemon vinaigrette) and harak osbao (a Damascus lentil stew containing Florida tamarind, sumac, broad noodles, and pomegranate) are standouts.
"They're doing a play on local ingredients, which I think is wonderful, like our Florida tamarind and heirloom tomatoes from the Redland," Hoffmann says.
The women will also share their stories with guests. "I can assure you that not a lot of dry eyes are going to be there," she says before emphasizing it will be a night of rejoicing. "We are celebrating people coming into our community and becoming a part of it in a positive way, where they are contributors. I think it will change some people's minds."
She's referring to those who might be resistant to the higher visibility of Arab immigrants in the United States. "I can just imagine what a lot of these ladies must feel walking down the street wearing their hijab and getting looks from people. We're not used to seeing it here in Florida. People have a certain reaction, and we have to demystify that."
The Women of Syria Dinner aims to help achieve that goal.
"A lot of these women originate from Aleppo, which, as we know, barely exists anymore. It's just a horrible fact, having to leave everything behind. Some of these women had great lives, productive lives."
Hoffman pauses, her enthusiasm and commitment to bringing these women's plight to light clearly evident in her tone: "They're not terrorists. They're wonderful, wonderful, good people."
Women of Syria Dinner, hosted by Alon Shaya and Ingrid Hoffmann, part of the CRAVE Greater Fort Lauderdale Series. 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, February 23, at Broward Center for Performing Arts, Porter Ballroom, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $200 via sobewff.org.