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Community spotlight: What's cooking in Bebe's Kitchen?
Babita Verma is bringing grandmas' recipes to homes across Atlanta
On a Sunday afternoon in late February, Babita Verma stood behind the cooktop in the kitchen of the Decatur Recreation Center, passing around a tray with nine different types of lentils. Each of them had distinct qualities and would cook very different types of daals, she explained to a dozen curious participants who had signed up for her South Indian cooking class.
“When people think Indian cuisine, they think chicken tikka masala and naan. But that’s not the kind of Indian food any Indian has grown up eating. Nobody used to make naan at home,” she said, laughing.
Babita is the founder of Bebe’s Kitchen, a social enterprise she started in 2020 that works with immigrant and refugee women chefs in metro Atlanta to set up cooking classes and food pop ups. Her mission is to highlight home style meals from different cultures, while also providing “home chefs,” she says, an avenue for a possible career in the food industry. “Many [women] are exploring, and we want to help them without the challenges of overhead costs.”
The idea for Bebe’s Kitchen was born a few years after Babita moved to metro Atlanta from India. She is on an H4 visa- the visa granted to spouses of those who are on H1B employment visas - and she wasn’t able to secure a work permit initially. That, combined with raising two small children and adjusting to a new culture, was “very challenging,” she said.
She started volunteering at New American Pathways (NAP), a refugee and immigrant support organization, and Refugee Women’s Network, where she met women from around the world. “I could immediately connect and relate,” she said, while also recognizing that she was here by choice, and many of the families she met were not. (She now works at NAP as the Manager of Volunteerism and Community Outreach.)
Since the launch of Bebe’s Kitchen, Babita has organized 24 cooking classes and pop-ups in collaboration with 10 local chefs, including women from Ukraine, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and Venezuela. *I actually learned about Bebe’s Kitchen from my neighbor (hi Bailey!) who attended the Ukrainian cooking class, where they made dishes like borscht (a hearty vegetable soup) and piroshki (pastries filled with beef or veggies)*
This spring she’ll offer a Lebanese cooking class (back by popular demand!) on April 15th (tickets on sale here) and a Mother’s Day event on May 13th featuring classic Indian food (details to come, she said). Babita also hopes to work with a local Congolese chef to have a Congolese cooking workshop.
I connected with Babita to learn more her journey and her plans for Bebe’s Kitchen.
What inspired you to start Bebe's kitchen?
My story started with my BeBe - my mother. 'Bebe' is an Indian language meaning grandma or an elderly lady of the house. And these grandma’s/Yaya’s/ Baba’s are mostly about warm love and stories dished out with generous helpings of food. I grew up in North India and as a child, I would spend a lot of time in the kitchen watching my mom cook, asking questions - absorbing the sounds and smells around me. My job in the non profit sector in India took me around across different parts of India.
During my travels, I met these amazing 'BeBe's' who opened their hearts and kitchens to me - I witnessed the power of food to make strangers feel more included.
In 2016, when I moved to the US for my husband’s job, I had to adapt to a new culture - it was challenging. I got the opportunity to meet these amazing refugee and immigrant women who were facing tremendous pressure to adapt quickly to American culture, language, relevant professional skills and personal constraints often remain a challenge. But there was one skill in these women’s favor. Many were accomplished chefs in their cuisines, having learnt the finer aspects of heritage dishes from their BeBe's. And the idea of BeBe's Kitchen was born, and was eventually formally established in early 2020.
Tell us about some of the women you've worked with through the pop-ups and cooking classes.
It has been a fascinating journey where I personally have learned so much. While some of our partner chefs already have established small businesses, and were exploring to add new dimensions to their offerings, some were really just wetting their feet to see the response to the craft, test their food before formally launching in a farmers market, or increase their reach and gain new clientele for catering opportunities, or just test the waters before deciding what their path is going to be.
One trait is common across all of them - they are all so proud to be sharing their heritage with the larger community in Atlanta.
What do you think are the biggest challenges they have in starting their own businesses?
Lack of understanding and exposure of the overall food industry, mandatory certifications, legal and financial aspects and overhead costs/ financial investment. Being in a new country, it takes a lot of time and effort to form connections, get guidance, to gain confidence and sometimes to understand the value of their skills.
Are there any recipes that you particularly love that you learned about through Bebe's kitchen?
There are so many! The very versatile Arepas that were a highlight of our Venezuelan class, the Lebanese Muhammara (roasted red pepper dip), the hearty Borscht from Ukraine, Pkhali (spinach balls) from the country Georgia, Afghani Mantu (dumplings), traditional Ethiopian Cookies and so many more!
What are your dreams for your business?
Our vision is to have ‘BeBe’s Marketplace’ - a space for BeBe’s chefs to sell their heritage dishes/ products, organize hands-on cooking experiences, dine in events, and much more; a space that offers welcoming and unique immersive experiences that go beyond food.
How can women home chefs get involved with Bebe’s Kitchen?
They can reach out to us on email@example.com, and I will be happy to discuss more with them. The focus is on heritage dishes and recipes. Also, we schedule a tasting and based on their interest and comfort, we can feature them in our pop ups or cooking classes.
We also encourage our chefs - specifically for pop ups to be ServSafe Certified.
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