Photo Courtesy of Hannah Goldberg
Goldberg started Tanabel, food & events company — which celebrates the rich culinary traditions of the Middle East and employs refugee women — after the 2016 presidential election. Goldberg, who has been a chef since 2001, envisioned Tanabel as a space where women share a taste of home with their new communities and provide them with meaningful and empowering employment.
Welcome, Hannah to Chefs for Impact!
By Hannah Goldberg as told to Chefs for Impact
Was there a defining moment that led you to start Tanabel?
"So I graduated from school. It was the summer of 2001. I immediately started to work in three different kitchens, and I loved it more than I thought I would. I felt like there was a lot of theater in it, working creatively, on a team, putting on a show every night.
Then Sept 11th happened. Everything shut down. I was a pastry chef in SOHO. When we reopened, I went back to making our fancy desserts but also started making stuff to send to Ground Zero. There was this dichotomy.
So I was making cookies for Ground Zero and still cooking meals at $200 a head. That tension exists all the time for everyone I know in cooking. Margins are slim, you make a high quality product that demands a certain price, demands a certain clientele. There is so much need in and around food right now – there are so many have-nots.
When I look back at 9/11 – this will be my 20th year cooking professionally. When I look at Tanabel now, I think about the direction we take and we work with women and families who have been impacted by the decisions that were made on September 11th.
It sort of bookended my career. We’ve been in this war in Afghanistan for 20 years and we really don’t know much about Afghanistan and its people, culture, food. I feel we have the responsibility to other people for the actions we take. I would like to think we would all agree that people deserve to be treated humanely.
So my long term plan for Tanabel was for it to be a safe place for the traditions and foods of women from all over the world. But starting out, I thought it was important for Tanabel to have a focus so we began with Syria because that was the crisis of the moment. In the near term, I feel the need for us to keep a focus on the food of the Middle East. Launched after the Muslim ban, I feel like it’s a space where Americans have a particular disconnect, lack of understanding of the women of these cultures."
You mentioned that the last administration was what ignited you to start Tanabel. If the last administration never happened, would you have kept going the way you were going or do you think you would have eventually started a Tanabel?
"I don’t know because I don’t know if the access would have been there. So I found a refugee taskforce locally and I started to do charitable work with them and started to meet people at refugee resettlement agencies and started to meet these women. It seemed I just put one foot in front of the other, it felt very organic, but would I have had that access if that impetus was not there, it’s hard to say. I do think that I’ve had a very disparate career in food, worn a lot of hats, and the thread through them was preserving the traditional, those recipes that might get lost, so coming to Tanabel feels like the culmination of everything else in my career.It encapsulates pretty neatly what matters to me in food – it makes sense to me."
What is the general experience for the chefs who come to work for Tanabel? Talk about the support Tanabel provides for these chefs. What is the length of time they stay with Tanabel, and have any of them subsequently gone out on their own?
"Each case is very unique. I try to meet people where they are. A lot of the women I’ve worked with have been here as widows, and I have worked with women here with their husbands with young kids, where their husbands are reluctant for them to work outside of the house. For some, doing a dinner one Saturday a month might be a good fit, others may need full-time work. The Tanabel experience is evolving as we evolve.
You just featured Nasrin Rejali, who worked with us for a number of years. We did a last dinner with her in December, and some like Nasrin go on and do their own thing and she is doing great and will continue to do great. Others are happy to show up and put in a day’s work while they have other responsibilities. I have to say the onboarding process is a lot harder than a traditional company and finding people who are the right fit. So, my hope is that women will come and work with us and stay and that it will feel like home and it feels like a family.
My hope is that we eventually have a brick and mortar space and each of the chefs have a key and an ownership share of the business and it will feel a part of themselves, something they can invest in."
How has COVID-19 impacted your business? If there was one positive aspect of the pandemic, what would that be for you and Tanabel?
"In the first couple of weeks of the pandemic we started with a charitable initiative to get people groceries, but when we started cooking again for Tanabel, we started with Feasts in a Bag, dinners for two. Being in Park Slope, we have made more inroads into the community, grown our community of our customers enormously. The word of mouth has grown. It’s cool to be part that, especially when people are so distanced, craving that comfort and to be able to step in and provide that, has been a real privilege. It’s been a real boon moving us in the direction where I want to go with our store and what role I want that store to play in the community. I feel like we are laying the groundwork for that now in a way that feels really well-rooted."
What’s next for Tanabel, or what would you like to accomplish for Tanabel next – whether it be a collaboration that can help expand your reach or drive even more impact?
"The goal for this year is to get into a brick and mortar space, continue to offer what we are offering now but also a standing roster of baked goods, pickles and jams, a well-curated grocery experience, embed ourselves in a community and grow our team. Since day one of Tanabel, I’ve wanted to create that space."
What would you recommend people who are new to Tanabel to try?
"Having worked with half a dozen different women from Syrian, it’s the variation. If you take a dish like muhammara which is uniquely Syrian – a red pepper and walnut dip with pomegranate molasses – no woman I’ve worked with has made it the same.
It’s a question of what is the palate and taste of your family? Where is your mom from or your mother-in-law from? So I love dishes like that. One isn’t better than the other. It’s just different. I love that imprint that each woman brings."
Tell us about your Valentine’s Day special
"This menu is so good! This is the first time we're doing quail. I feel like Valentine's Day is the perfect time. We are calling it the Feast for Love Birds – little quail in a pomegranate glaze. It is a really lovely, juicy, and yummy menu."
Tap here to learn more about Tanabel’s Valentine’s Day special.