Mana Heshmati is serving up much more than Persian stuffed peppers and rose water. The founder of the Peace Meal Kitchen pop-up is using authentic, worldly cuisine to bring awareness to often-misrepresented cultures and to try to bring together different communities in metro Detroit.
Heshmati, 26, was born in Sweden to Persian immigrants who left Iran after the revolution. She and her family moved to the U.S. when she was 3. In 2011, Heshmati moved to Ferndale after getting a job with Ford.
After completing a business development program through the Build Institute, Heshmati founded Peace Meal Kitchen in early 2016.
It functions as a gastrodiplomacy pop-up: Food is used to provide an accessible cultural experience that can help bridge the gap between different communities. A majority of the proceeds are also donated to a nonprofit, which aids citizens in the country of focus.
An April pop-up titled “A Taste of Iran” benefited the OMID foundation, which helps young women in Iran who are disadvantaged.
“We believe that food really reaches across boundaries and speaks to a large variety of people,” says Heshmati. During the pop-up events, diners also learn about the geography, culture, and people of the country in focus.
The idea was based in part on the Pittsburgh-based Conflict Kitchen, an endeavor that became popular while Heshmati was attending college in the area. But it was the metro Detroit population that inspired her.
“What really fueled me was how much diversity exists in Detroit,” she says. “It’s such a diverse city, and yet it’s so segregated.” She believes Peace Meal Kitchen can increase awareness and visibility of the cultural landscape in metro Detroit.
Heshmati tries to incorporate educational components to the meal, including the traditional names of dishes, regional dining etiquette, or facts about the food’s impact on culture.
Both her parents were great cooks, says Heshmati, giving her an advantage when cooking Iranian fare. “It’s something that’s very close to my heart,” she says.
For future meals, she will work locally with the featured community in mind, making dishes taste as close to home-cooked as possible.
Heshmati has also previously teamed up with nonprofit and educational institution Cinema Detroit. They showed Iranian movies to complement Peace Meal Kitchen’s fare in June.
On Aug. 13, Heshmati will be hosting the first “Melting PotLUCK,” which encourages community members to bring a dish to share that represents their own culture.
On Sept. 11, Peace Meal Kitchen will be hosting an Israeli-Palestinian Conflict dinner, with dishes juxtaposed to represent their respective countries. The event will also include moderated discussions.
“The biggest goal, aside from the awareness aspect, is to begin accepting each other’s differences,” says Heshmati. “It sounds a little bit silly, but especially in today’s political climate I feel like that’s becoming an even more important issue.”