Words and photos by Chase Ferren
The window looks in on a restaurant with turquoise walls covered in maps of South Asia, and a small space with wooden tables and a dastarkhan surrounded by silk-screened pillows designed by a local Syracuse woman.
Inside, there are—depending on the customer—familiar or foreign scents of kewda, masala and Granny Smith apples.
And in six months, all those scents will be gone.
With Love is the brainchild of Syracuse resident Adam Sudmann. Currently, the restaurant is "With Love, Pakistan." In six months, it will be "With Love, (Some Other Nation)" — but for now, it is the only Pakistani restaurant in Syracuse as of its opening on December 2. And it’s not just promising unique cuisine. It’s securing a future for its staff.
Sudmann, 41, was hired by Onondaga Community College as its Workforce Development program director for food service management. As he sits cross-legged on a navy blue cushion on the dastarkahn and adjusts his clear-rimmed glasses, Sudmann explains the vision for this restaurant.
“We have a lot of folks in Syracuse who have been locked out [of the workforce] through circumstances, or choices they've made, or whatever it might be, who can't currently get living wage jobs,” he says. “And they need pertinent skill sets delivered quickly.”
OCC Workforce Development students work as the restaurant’s staff for about six months to cultivate these skills. They have the option of taking the line cook/back of house track or the food service management/front of house track. Both tracks, Sudmann explains, are aimed at securing students living wage jobs after completion, and eventually earning thriving wages.
The front of house track is reserved for one student—the restaurant’s entrepreneur, who will “incubate” at With Love for six months before launching their own career in restaurant management. After six months, both the entrepreneur and the regional cuisine will change.
Sarah Robin, 30, is With Love’s current “restaurateur-in-residence,” as Sudmann calls her. Robin, soft-spoken and thoughtful with her words, is a Pakistani refugee who came to Syracuse in 2012. She lives here, with her husband, in an apartment just a few blocks from With Love.
Originally from Lahore, Punjab—Pakistan’s romance capital—Robin decided to start cooking at just 12 years old. She says she used to watch her mother cook and fell in love with it.
“I said, ‘I can cook better than you, mommy,’” she says, smiling. “So I did.”
Robin met Sudmann through his pop-up, multi-national food event, My Lucky Tummy, which he started in 2013, shortly after moving to Syracuse from Brooklyn. The food festival attracts upward of 300 Syracuse locals, refugees and immigrants for an evening of cooking and celebration.
“What you can find in this neighborhood is just unbelievable,” Sudmann says. “Not in terms of restaurants, but just in terms of people.”
Robin says she found Sudmann through his business card at Catholic Charities right down the street. He was searching for people to cook at My Lucky Tummy events. She says she cooked for the events several times before launching the With Love program with Sudmann.
“It's going to be good introducing my own country, representing my country,” Robin says. “This part is really great.”
My Lucky Tummy is also how the restaurant got its start. Sudmann says the food festivals caught the attention of a local friend involved with entrepreneurship and business growth. He introduced Sudmann to the OCC Workforce Development team. Fusing his love of food and people, Sudmann helped OCC develop the With Love program using funds from a federal grant.
To honor that grant, each detail of With Love is focused on education. With Love’s menu is not strictly traditional Pakistani food. Some foods, like Granny Smith apples and Brussels sprouts, will be familiar American twists on unfamiliar Pakistani dishes. The purpose of this, Sudmann explains, is to ensure the cooking lessons are applicable to any line cook jobs.
“We have to find ways to really show the employers out there that they're good at everything,” Sudmann says. “This just happens to be the lens we're using right now.”
Each dish is tied to a specific cooking lesson. For example, the apple pakora teaches students how to fry and make batter. The gajar halwa, a carrot-based dessert Sudmann says he fell in love with years ago, is a lesson in nostalgia.
Even the payphone inside the front door is educational. Anyone curious enough to pick up the receiver will hear language learning tapes playing at the other end.
Chris Muniz, 28, is the economic and workforce instructor with the OCC program and With Love’s head chef. He has been working with Robin for nearly six months to develop her kitchen skills and stretch the traditional recipes she brought to the table.
The lessons, though, are not only about knife skills and cooking techniques. “People are going to send back something because they don't like it,” Muniz says, explaining both the frustrations and joys of the restaurant business. “They're going to get to experience of people coming up to the window and saying ‘this was the best meal I’ve had in a really long time,' or ‘I can't wait to come back.’ All of those emotions. And I think that's what cooking in a restaurant is really all about.”
Robin says the new lens is a unique challenge for her as she learns how to put fresh twists on traditional dishes. “For example, when we [traditionally] serve rice biryani we use whole spices," she says. "You don't hide it. But now, in the restaurant, we have to put it in a cheese cloth and then take it out. For me, this is the beauty of the food.”
Robin adds that Sudmann and Muniz have been sure to pay homage to her favorite traditional Pakistani food. Haleem, a traditional lentil dish, is on With Love’s menu and is Robin’s own lesson in nostalgia.
“It just reminds me of my home,” she says.