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From naan to soul food, these Utah chefs are bridging cultures one plate at a time

Kiki Sharma stands outside of Bhutan House. Her family started their own restaurant through the Spice Kitchen Incubator and has used it as a way to connect with others in the community.
Leah Triedler
Kiki Sharma stands outside of Bhutan House. Her family started their own restaurant through the Spice Kitchen Incubator and has used it as a way to connect with others in the community.

Kiki Sharma moved to Utah in 2010 from a refugee camp in Nepal. As she prepared for the journey, she said a concern started to grow — what type of food were they going to eat in the U.S.?

“As we were traveling here, I remember they were giving us our food at the airplane that I didn't like,” Sharma said. “I was very sad. I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, is this the food that I have to deal with now every day.’”

Fortunately for her, that fear of finding the food she loved and enjoyed was short-lived because her parents knew a Nepalese family in the area. They cooked her meals and took her to markets selling familiar foods and spices. She said that was a major part of when her family started to feel like they could “survive here in the mountains.” It was also when Utah started to “feel like home.”

Starting Bhutan House

Sharma said food provides comfort for her family. Her mom grew up on a farm in Bhutan and by the time she turned five, she was cooking for 50 people at a time. Now, Sharma owns her own restaurant in Sandy — Bhutan House.

There, brightly colored curries simmer over the stove as cooks routinely pull naan from the side of a tandoor oven. The smells make their way to the customers through the kitchen door and into the dimly lit restaurant where red-tinged lights hang low over the tables.

Sharma's family was able to start their restaurant through the Spice Kitchen Incubator, a Salt Lake City-based organization that helps refugees open catering businesses and restaurants.

“Being able to contribute to the community through food and through something that they know and they love is so important to not just being part of a community but it also builds confidence,” said Jackie Rodabaugh, Spice Kitchen’s community coordinator. “It gives them an opportunity to meet people and be out in the community as a whole.”

Sharma sees her food as a bridge for more than finding comfort in her new home. She uses her cheese naan and butter chicken to help educate people about her country.

“A lot of people didn't and didn't even know where Bhutan, Nepal was,” she said. “And then because of the food, it opens up the conversation, and then it's like, ‘Oh, you're from here, what is Bhutan? Oh, it's a country. What type of food? Oh, it's the food I'm eating.’”

Soul food with a side of history

Chef Julius Thompson, who moved to Utah from Chicago, said he’s seen the same type of bridges being built for others in the community. He owns Sauce Boss Southern Kitchen in Draper and like Sharma, serves food he learned about from his family.

“Whenever my aunts would get together, I'd be over there helping, prepping, cooking,” Thompson said. He said through that hard work, he was inspired to cook food for other people and saw food as an opportunity for him to “bring that kind of happiness to other people.”

In his restaurant, cooks sear pork chops on the stove and fry chicken. Customers eat off plates piled high with shrimp and grits or macaroni and cheese and collard greens. Thompson said they also serve fried green tomatoes and pork shank.

And in Utah where under 2% of the population is African American, he noticed a lack of diversity in the food to match.

“When I got here, there were a lot of chains,” Thompon said. “A couple of times we went to our friend's house for dinner, it was mostly casseroles and things like that — nothing that I grew up with whenever me and my family got together for Thanksgiving.”

Now, he’s focused on using food as a window to inform people about his culture. He said it’s clear people love the meals his restaurant serves, but few who come in know the history behind their plates.

“Soul food began when slaves were given discarded pieces of meat, vegetables and just given scraps, and they had to turn to some palatable so they can keep working so they can keep moving,” Thompson explained.

Connecting with people over food has helped him have conversations that other times would make people uncomfortable.

For both him and Sharma, food has become more than a daily necessity. It’s a way to connect with other people regardless of identity.

“Even though the world, our country, will always have issues with the way we look on the outside, we all need food on the inside to keep us going,” Thompson said.

Corrected: March 31, 2022 at 9:09 AM MDT
This story, and the audio version, were updated to correct the year that Kiki Sharma came to Utah.
Updated: March 30, 2022 at 8:01 AM MDT
This story was updated to clarify the ownership of Bhutan House.
Leah is the Morning Edition associate producer at KUER.
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