patience buckwalter collage

Patience Buckwalter says of Grape Leaf Cafe's chefs, who have been refugees and immigrants: "(The women) have something to offer, and I want to celebrate that."

Cooking is not her “love language,” Patience Buckwalter says.

But using food to connect cultures, to foster a sense of belonging and to expand horizons? That, she says, is her passion.

It’s led to Grape Leaf Cafe, a pop-up venture that held its first official buffet, featuring the food of Syria, last month. Its next event, this Sunday, highlights the cuisine of Somalia.

Buckwalter funds the purchase of the ingredients, arranges for time in commercial kitchens and reserves a place where Grape Leaf Cafe can be held. She recruits cooks from the local community of refugees and immigrants, and guarantees their payment.

“At the end of the day this is a passion of mine; it’s not my full-time job,” says Buckwalter, who works in post-adoption services for Bethany Christian Services and as an adjunct instructor in graduate social work studies at Millersville University.

“I have other sources of income, so I look at this like, Hey, I want to try this out ... right now I’ve broken even, and that’s all that I ask.”

We talked to Buckwalter about her inspiration, the women of Grape Leaf Cafe and how she imagines the venture evolving. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired Grape Leaf Cafe?

When Najah (Al Dakhil, the cafe’s cook for the March Syrian meal) came here about 10 years ago, they actually lived about a block up (from Buckwalter’s home). I was adopted from Ethiopia, and my mom had spent a lot of time in Syria and Jordan, and we just connected with her in that way.

Food is Najah’s love language. When there are people over at their house, (food) is just there, whether it’s tea, or bread, or a whole meal, that’s how we communicate. I mean, they’ve learned English, but (food) is still at the core.

Why do you think that is?

Food brings people together whether you’re there to see how they’re doing, or to pick up for an appointment. ... You can just break bread.

It’s a leap of faith from that to opening a pop-up cafe. ...

It can be hard (for women arriving in a new country) to find their niche. Najah (cooked for a few earlier events), but it just wasn’t profitable to do it that way. They’d have to provide all the food, have to do all the cooking, and they may walk away with $40. So (I thought) why don’t I start something you can be a part of, showcase your food. I don’t need anything else from you: I don’t need to share your story; I don’t need you to showcase yourself. Your food is how you connect with people.

So how does the cafe operate?

I set up the kitchen space, I find the places to showcase the food, I pay all the up-front costs. They’re walking away with income, and its supplemental income. ... They have something to offer, and I want to celebrate that. I targeted refugee and immigrant women because who doesn’t want to try different food.

That’s kind of a risk on your end.

There’s a gamble on my end. The hope is that we grow it to where we do have some money just sitting. No matter (an event’s attendance), the women and the servers walk away having been paid, because I don’t want that to be an inconsistency or inconvenience on their end. Right now I’ve broken even, and that’s all that I ask.

Logistically, how does Grape Leaf Cafe operate?

For right now, our “restaurant” is at Awash Ethiopian Restaurant (1027 Dillerville Road). The owner lets us use that space for free, and the hope is that we get people inside his doors for his business, too. He’s been so gracious for us.

We’re using the kitchen space at Ten Thousand Villages in Ephrata (the cafe there closed in February). That partnership really works because they’re kind of aligned with what we do.

Who chooses the menu for a pop-up event?

Within the week of the event, I meet with the cooks to create a menu, and (figure out) where is the best place to get the food. For example, for the Syrian meal, we had to make sure the chicken was halal (slaughtered according to Muslim law in a way that minimizes suffering).

One cook (in the past) said, Oh, Americans will like (a particular dish) this (other) way ... and I said no, I want you to make it how you would if you were having a family gathering, or in your country. Because if people aren’t coming here to try the authentic food, then they’re not in the right spot.

Is it a menu that vegetarians and vegans can sample?

For many (cultures), meat is not always readily available. Even when I was living in Ethiopia, you might have meat once a week. You don’t think of it as (being) vegetarian, you think of it as, this is what we have to eat.

Was your first large-scale event successful?

At noon (March 25, when the Syrian meal began), I saw someone who’d been sitting in their car kind of poke their head in, and then by 12:30 we had the church rush. The tables were all taken (in the restaurant) and people were lined up out the door.

The cook poked her head out of the kitchen, and her face just lit up when she saw the restaurant packed. You could see: “All these people are here to try my food!”

It was wonderful to see. And the servers (recruited from McCaskey High School’s National Honor Society) did a great job.

What’s planned for Grape Leaf Cafe cooks beyond the pop-up meals and catering?

There’s ServSafe certification (through the National Restaurant Association) that I’ll be taking, (because) restaurant (operation) is not in my background.

The women will be doing a food-handling course, which is kind of cool because it’s something that they can take with them and use to further their cooking if they’d want to. And they can do it as a group, and in the kitchen, where it’s hands on.