Alganesh Michael’s catering business, A Taste of Abyssinia, was born during the lockdown of the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Michael, her two daughters, and her husband, Abyi, were all home.
Michael had been offering pop-up meals and cooking classes in the cuisine of her native Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia for several years.
Together, the family decided that Michael should start a catering business. One of her daughters designed the web site and Michael began taking orders for delivering meals.
Three years later, the Eritrean immigrant who does not have a restaurant is a semifinalist for a prestigious James Beard Award for best chef in the Northeast.
“I’m not a big-shot chef or anything like that at all,” said Michael, who now offers takeout meals every Wednesday at the Mill Market and Deli in South Burlington. “I’m just a regular person.”
The James Beard Awards generally go to chefs who work in restaurants. Michael said that, at the moment, she has no plans to open her own restaurant.
“I’m going to continue what I do because I love what I do,” Michael said. “I have the opportunity to travel to small towns in Vermont. If I am locked down to one place, yes, people will come to me, but I will not have the luxury to travel. I love offering this food to folks that would not know it otherwise.”
Michael, who lives in South Burlington, is a former nurse in her 50s. When she was young, she said, she moved from Eritrea to Minnesota to join her brothers and her father to pursue her studies in nursing. There, she met Abiy, the man who would become her husband. The two eventually moved to Vermont when he accepted a job there. They have two daughters.
She said her husband helps her with ideas and advice, but not in the day-to-day running of her business.
She started doing catering, pop-up restaurants and teaching cooking classes through Access CVU, a community education program at Champlain Valley Union High School, in Hinesburg, at least 10 years ago, said Lauren Howard, one of the directors of the program.
“They love her,” Howard said. “Everything that she does is about experiencing her culture, and I think that’s why people really enjoy her cooking classes.”
Soon after she started offering classes at Champlain Valley Union, she started doing pop-ups and teaching cooking classes at Richmond Community Kitchen, Michael said. Michael also did pop-up events at Tandem, a production kitchen with two long tables in Bristol, starting in 2016, said Jess Messer, co-owner of Tandem.
“Huge hit,” Messer said of Michael’s pop-ups. Michael would sell out three seatings of 25 people, Messer said.
“She’s very pure and self-taught and authentic,” Messer said. “It’s really nice to see somebody like that get accolades, as opposed to some sort of more haughty trained chef-y chef.”
As winter approached in 2020, Michael realized she did not want to continue delivering meals in the cold and the snow, so she started the takeout business at the Mill Market and Deli.
She explained that Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine is known for its spongy sourdough flatbread, called injera, which is accompanied by stews infused with a spice mixture called berbere. The cuisine includes lentils and shiro, a stew of ground chickpeas.
She takes orders until Tuesdays for takeout Wednesdays because the injera is fermented and must be made at least a day ahead, she said.
Michael said she loves to cook even when it’s not for work. She said she also enjoys hiking, walking and reading.
She said she helps Eritrean mothers in a refugee camp.
Michael said she also goes to schools in Chittenden and Addison counties to speak about the food and the culture of Eritrea and Ethiopia. She brings her food so that people can sample it after she speaks.
She said she had never heard of the James Beard Awards until she was nominated for one as best chef in the Northeast.
“Not to have your own store, but yet to be nominated for this, is huge,” Michael said. “I’m really honored. If you follow your passion, you can really do things.”
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