Jeff Orlick believes that food has the power to be innocently subversive.
“Food is innocuous; it’s like the Trojan Horse,” says Orlick, one of the founders of Breaking Bread NYC, an organization that started hosting cultural exchange dinners in response to Trump’s travel ban. Now he’s bringing the concept to North Texas for one night from 6 to 8 p.m. on March 8 at Bilad Bakery and Restaurant, an Iraqi restaurant and bakery in Richardson.
“Hearing about these cultures in the news, you become naturally curious, and we're feeding into that curiosity,” Orlick says. “It’s food diplomacy.”
Breaking Bread NYC organizes neighborhood restaurant crawls in New York City that highlight cuisines from countries affected by the Trump administration’s travel ban. The recently reversed executive order banned or limited travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
A typically apolitical space, restaurants and food vendors have had reason to become more involved lately. Orlick, who has been leading cultural eating events in New York City for 10 years, decided this was a great use of his talents.
Having found himself with some vacation time, he eyed Texas to plan a dinner. “I never did an event outside of New York,” says Orlick, who speaks with a thick Queens accent. “I booked a trip to Dallas. I thought it would be an interesting place to go; I’ve never been to Texas before. I had no idea what to do while I’m there. And I like to do work.”
Orlick confesses he wasn’t sure what the response would be, but on a phone call from New York, he was ecstatic that six tickets had already been purchased. He says he’d be fine if only 10 people show up, but there are nearly 100 people who clicked “interested” on the Facebook event page. He says the restaurant will be glad to accommodate 100, if needed.
“It seems like a challenge. I’m not going to decide before I get there that it wouldn’t be welcome,” Orlick says. “I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen.”
Tickets are selling for $20, which includes dinner, tax and tip. The restaurant just received a shining review from the Observer, and the menu offerings for the dinner are mouthwatering: Iraqi bread and zaatar dip, beef shawarma, chicken shawarma, Iraqi kabab, falafel, Iraqi rice, cucumber yogurt, eggplant salad, tabouleh, Iraqi pickles, hummus, traditional tea and for dessert, baklava, knefeh and fruit. Vegetarian and vegan substitutions can also be accommodated.
According to Orlick, there will be no blatant political agenda at the dinner. “We’re not telling you to believe anything. Come eat with us, and if you have any questions, ask,” he says.
Although not outrightly political, the mission behind the organization does strike an emotional chord for Orlick, who is of Jewish ancestry. “My ancestors, my own relatives had a very hard time getting over here, and that should never happen again,” he says. “It’s a very personal thing.”
Having never been to Texas, Orlick says he put out some queries to his food network and was connected with Salvy Muhammad, a refugee facilitator and community organizer who moved to Dallas from Atlanta about a year ago. A self-described foodie, she actually came to know about the restaurant through the Observer’s review, visited with her husband and decided it was the perfect place to have the event.
Muhammad worked with Bilad’s owner, Fuad Al Bawyma, to choose the menu. Although Al Bawyma speaks Arabic predominately, Muhammad said he was easy to work with, “very sweet about things and really excited about the dinner,” she says.
She also said the restaurant’s promise to feed anyone who’s hungry whether they can pay or not was maybe the most compelling reason to have it there. “The biggest thing that stood out to me is the sign outside the restaurant that says ‘Free meal for the poor.’ It’s not like a really fancy restaurant, but they’re still giving to those in need,” Muhammad says.
In fact, after paying for costs, proceeds from dinner sales will fund Bilad’s free meal initiative, a program based on one of the five tenets of Islam, which dictates that followers should help those less fortunate.
“You’re supposed to share your wealth, share whatever you have with everyone — especially those who need it,” Muhammad says. Orlick hopes people who know nothing about Islam or the countries included in the travel ban come out and give it a try.
“Make up your own minds,” he says. “It’s just food. It’s the ultimate ambassador to cultures.”
Bilad Bakery & Restaurant, 850 S. Greenville Ave., Richardson