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Preparing tasty sushi was never an issue for Lucy Thanghliang, who learned her craft from an uncle in her homeland of Burma.
But figuring out how to make a living doing it, in compliance with American laws and business practices, was another matter. So she turned for assistance to the International Rescue Committee, which, working with Salt Lake County, established a SPICE (Supporting the Pursuit of Innovative Culinary Entrepreneurs) Kitchen Incubator program 18 months ago to help refugees convert their cooking skills into a livelihood.
"I've learned many things about business in America," said Thanghliang, one of three refugee chefs whose culinary treats were on display Wednesday at an open house at the program's new home complete with a commercial kitchen at 2180 S. 300 West in Salt Lake City.
"Paperwork," she added. "There's a lot of it. It's a pain, but you have to do it."
The rewards are quite satisfying, said Thanghliang, who has run Family Fresh Sushi since 2009 with her husband, Dar Ki. They now have sushi kiosks in 10 stores and distribute to outlets from St. George to Orem.
"I like the freedom," she said of being an entrepreneur. "Sometimes it's hard, but you're working for yourself, doing things you love and being creative."
Thanghliang's experience epitomizes the goal of the Spice Kitchen, said program overseer Natalie El-Deiry, the International Rescue Committee's deputy director.
"Everyone deserves a chance to achieve their dreams," she said, citing the program's provision of business principles, marketing opportunities and access to a commercial kitchen as prime assets.
"We're here to support them every step of the way," El-Deiry added, citing the support of American Express, GE Capital, CIT and Ally banks, Morgan Stanley, the Community Foundation of Utah and Salt Lake County.
County officials see this program as an innovative approach to integrating refugees into the community, said Human Services Director Lori Bays.
Noting that there are 50,000 refugees in the county, Bays said this program is "harnessing the diversity of the future Salt Lake County."
El-Deiry said the initial batch of culinary entrepreneurs will include people from Bhutan, Iraq, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Samoa.
Ali Muna hails from the area of Sudan where the Blue and White branches of the Nile River meet. Her business, Muna's Kitchen, features the types of pastries her father made back home, but also includes hints of Ethiopian and Egyptian foods.
This program, she said, "helps me to grow in my business and to do what I like to do. I hope to be better off in the future than now."
The next six weeks will be spent getting the entrepreneurs accustomed to the commercial kitchen and acquiring more equipment. El-Deiry's goal is to be ready by January to invite the public in to sample the delicacies. "We're ready to roll," she added.