in partnership
Jackie Nkirote serves up Kenyan food in the final cook off to earn her MarketShare Fellowship. (Image: Tia White Photography)

Do you dream of an indoor street-food market in Seattle?

Is your fantasy food market full of stalls serving Vietnamese bun cha (char-grilled pork), Kenyan chapati breads, and Filipino lumpia? Do you wish you could have a side of pulao rice with your ceviche? These are the dreams of Philip Deng, the founder of MarketShare, a non-profit working to help immigrants start mobile food businesses serving their traditional cuisine, with the end goal of a market to house them all.

In October, MarketShare began the first phase of the project by naming Jackie Nkirote and Rosario "Chato" Carver their first two Fellows. The fellowship incubates each candidate to become a successful mobile food business owner, offering financial, educational, and mentorship resources over the course of a year. The market, Deng admits, is realistically a minimum of five years off, considering the fundraising, organization, and logistics. He calls his dream of an international street food market in a remodeled warehouse somewhere in Seattle the third phase of the organization's plan.

First, Nkirote and Carver will spend the next twelve months developing recipes, honing business plans, and finding farmers markets and other events at which to set up their mobile restaurants. Deng, along with the MarketShare team, will help them navigate the bureaucracy of licensing a restaurant, provide the equipment they need for their business, and introduce them to advisors who can help design a menu that appeals to customers.

Those customersthe fine people of Seattleare what come in between the fellowships (phase one) and the market (phase three). Deng is young and earnest, discussing the phases, logistics, and goals of the company with the seriousness of a press conference on ebola, until he gets to the part about the people involved in building the market. His voice grows and lilts with excitement as he describes getting the city involved in building the market. He pauses dramatically before announcing the hashtag: #BuildTheMarket. His eyes widen like a cartoon character that's just seen a pile of money, as he discusses mobilizing people into a movement to make the market happen. It's not surprising to learn that Deng landed in Seattle as a community organizer in the 37th District.

That job was what brought him into the kitchen of a Somali family one Ramadan. During the holiday, eating or drinking is forbidden during daylight hours, but the family still cooks all day for the grand post-fast feast in the evening. Steaming pots and sizzling pans brimmed with unfamiliar food that enticed him, and after tasting it, excited him. Overwhelmed and inspired, Deng realized the opportunity in front of him. Years of teaching in the Marshall Islands, working for non-profits in China, and a failed restaurant opening were suddenly exactly the background needed for him to bring the traditional foods of Seattle's immigrant communities to a wider audience, while helping them to have successful businesses in their adopted hometown.

Working backwards, Deng, whose day job is now the quite complementary role of immigration caseworker in local government, figured out that he had to start small and scale up. The fellowship was born, a baby step to an ambitious goal. To earn the fellowship, Nkirote and Carver filled out applications, completed interviews, and cooked for a panel of culinary judges. Nkirote spoke of wanting to make her father, a butcher still in Kenya, proud, serving stewed beef and sautéed kidney. Carver, who is Filipino, compared her excitement to fireworks, saying the sky was the limit, as she put out longaniza sausages and adobo rice with egg. For both women, the goal of serving their food to Seattle wasn't new, but it was just a dream with too many real barriers. Nkirote described the fellowship as "an opportunity to finally take strides at making a lifelong dream into an everyday reality." In order to remove those obstacles, and help the women, in Carver's words, to "embark on a new adventure with more confidence and knowledge," MarketShare works with other organizations (Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle), chefs, advisors (including Pinchot/Bainbridge Graduate Institute), and culinary training programs. The programs, Deng says, are out there. What is missing, and what MarketShare hopes to provide, is the guidance to navigate them all, and to bring that experience together to a successful, sustainable business.

It will probably be five months before Carver and Nkirote first hit the streets with their carts, giving them time to develop strong business plans and exciting, unique, and authentic menus. In the meantime, Deng hopes to start the city rallying to the long-term plan, signing up for the newsletter on the website, and maybe volunteering to help out. What the organization will need the most though, is something Seattle has in spades: adventurous, curious eaters ready to dive into the new-to-the-city cuisines that MarketShare is surfacing.