Amelia Reese Masterson, Kate Rebernak and employees of Framework at Sanctuary Kitchen

Culinary Hearts

There may be no better way to bring people together than food.

That’s exactly what’s happening in CitySeed’s Sanctuary Kitchen. Created last April, the project has two main goals, founding volunteer Donna Golden says. One is to help refugee and immigrant cooks in New Haven earn an income through food preparation and education. “But the other, equally important,” Golden says, “is for people to sit and talk… We’ve had some amazing conversations.”

Conversation was how the morning began on December 1, when the new commercial kitchen at CitySeed’s Grand Avenue office was the setting for a holiday cookie baking party. Employees of Framework, a consulting firm based in Stamford, gathered to make their annual holiday gifts for clients. Partnering with Sanctuary Kitchen this year was “something a little bit different,” Framework founder and CEO Kate Rebernak said. “In this day and age, we think it’s really important to build community.”

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Their instructor for the morning was Sanctuary Kitchen cook Fatema , a Syrian refugee who came to New Haven with her husband and young son two years ago. The goal: to bake 600 Syrian petit fours—butter cookies sandwiching a layer of apricot jam. But first, everyone gathered around the kitchen table to share a cup of coffee and introductions.

Then it was time to get to work. Fatema instructed Framework’s staff as they mixed flour, ghee (clarified butter), corn starch, sugar, butter and vanilla in four large mixing bowls. No electric mixers or even wooden spoons here: the dough was stiff, and Fatema insisted they put on gloves and work it by hand. Next they began the task of rolling 1,200 walnut-sized balls of dough and pressing them flat with the back of a fork. Each petit four would require two cookies. This would be an all-day project.

Fatema is one of about 30 refugee and immigrant cooks who are exploring new opportunities through Sanctuary Kitchen. She has already taught classes on making mahshi (stuffed vegetables) and ma’amoul (filled cookies), as well as doing some catering. But it’s not just about the food. “I was thinking about something that help me to… meet American people,” Fatema explains. “Sanctuary Kitchen helped me a lot to get to know people… and to be more comfortable talking in English.” And vice versa, according to CitySeed executive director Amelia Reese Masterson. “One goal is to expand people’s horizons about what is a refugee, who’s an immigrant, where do our new neighbors come from, what’s their culture like.”

Like any good businesswoman, Fatema had given some thought to who her customers are and what they need. She chose the petit four recipe—the French influence comes from Syria’s history as a French colony—because it was easy: no fancy cookie molds, no special equipment. And the ingredients, she pointed out, can be found in any kitchen. She knows where to shop for ingredients for traditional Syrian dishes, “but for Americans, always they ask, ‘Where did you get this? How can we get that?’” she says. “I always think about the ingredients that easy to get for everyone.”

Cooking classes and demonstrations like Fatema’s petit four session are among Sanctuary Kitchen’s most popular offerings. Currently for sale are two bundles: a trio of classes on “Stuffed Dishes from Around the World: Vegetables, Pastries & Dumplings” and a two-class series on “Desserts from Around the World.” The group also offers more intimate “supper clubs”—gatherings held in private homes, “a more intimate setting that’s less about learning how to make the food and more about enjoying it together and talking,” Masterson explains. “We do encourage people to invite friends who might not know or might have questions because I think it’s really important right now to create relationships, especially across growing divides. And it really does benefit refugees especially, who are just getting started here, to have friends and networks here.”

In addition to its public programs and private events, Sanctuary Kitchen also runs a Kitchen Incubator Program for would-be food business owners. The class, currently serving eight cooks with funding from a grant and other local support, meets every other week and covers business topics such as budgeting and accounting, product development and marketing, food safety and more. Seed funding is available upon completion of the course.

CitySeed, best known for its farmers’ markets, has been around since 2004, with a mission to “engage the community in growing an equitable, local food system that promotes economic development, community development and sustainable agriculture,” according to a brochure. Sanctuary Kitchen grew from those roots when a group of women from a variety of professional backgrounds found one another through a shared desire to help others via their passion for cooking and food.

“I’m always baking and cooking in my home,” says Golden, who has also volunteered with New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services for 10 years—a common bond among many of the Sanctuary Kitchen founders. “For a lot of us, it just brings together all of this in such a natural way: what we believe in, what our values are,” she says. “I love it.”

Sanctuary Kitchen
CitySeed – 817 Grand Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 773-3736 |

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image #1 depicts Amelia Reese Masterson, Kate Rebernak and employees of Framework.

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