Isabel Bolivar   11 September 2018

Hiyaw Gebreyohannes is a chef with an Ethiopian background and founder of Taste of Ethiopia. His business distributes ‘grab and go’ food boxes nationwide, so all Americans can enjoy the rich palette of Ethiopian flavours from the comfort of their homes.

His latest project, the Ethiopian casual eatery, Gorsha, redefines Ethiopian cuisine and serves high quality organic and vegan meals with a modern hint.

We chatted to Hiyaw about how his Ethiopian origins shaped the person he has become today, the American response to Ethiopian cuisine and how important it is to stay connected to family back home.

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How has being an immigrant impacted your life?

Being an immigrant has allowed me to be more open and respectful of other cultures, and to be more curious about the world around me. It’s opened the door to relationships with people from international diaspora communities. It’s also expanded my network of people with fascinating and diverse backgrounds. I believe that having the right people around me to support me on my journey has been so instrumental. 

What attracts you most to the Washington D.C?

Washington D.C. has a nice charm to it. One of the best things about the city is that it’s a great place to raise a family. It also has a large Habesha community, which makes it feel like a home away from home.

When did you realise that you wanted to be a chef?

I didn’t choose the chef life. The chef life chose me. I was introduced at such a young age, as early as seven, to the restaurant industry. My parents owned two Ethiopian restaurants. So the smells, sounds and experiences of the kitchen were always familiar to me.

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I don’t think being a chef was a conscious decision. It was just a natural next step in what I already knew so well. When I’d make food for people, whether it was at home or the restaurant, I loved seeing the joy people shared when breaking bread together. Recreating that joy around food has inspired my journey as a chef.

What was the main thought behind your restaurant Gorsha? How did you get started in setting up your business?

I wanted to share my love of Ethiopian food. I wanted to present it in such a way that would speak both to the people who’d never had it before and those who eat it every day. By creating a bowl-style menu, the food is accessible and familiar.

It didn’t take much convincing Union Market that there’s an audience interested in the menu. They were excited to have us as a vendor, because it offered a unique option for their patrons. We started as a pop-up, but given the great feedback we received, we made Union Market our permanent home. 

Having a vision and the right people around have been instrumental.

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As a founder of Gorsha, what challenges did you face when you introduced Ethiopian cuisine to an American audience? 

There weren’t too many challenges, because being in D.C., most of our American audiences were already pretty familiar with Ethiopian food. However, helping them realize that the food was authentic even though it’s presented in a different way was - and continues to be - by far the biggest challenge.

How have people responded?

We’ve made people who’ve never had Ethiopian food before excited to try it. And the people, who’ve had the cuisine before, just love the convenience.

It seems that as they’ve learned the Gorsha menu, they’ve become more adventurous with the various dishes often found in Ethiopian menus, as opposed to just ordering traditional platters. 

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What do you think people in the U.S. can learn from Ethiopian culture?

Hopefully, through the spread of the Ethiopian diaspora and through more awareness of our food, people will grow more intrigued by - and interested in - traveling to Ethiopia.

What are the lessons you would share with your younger self?

I wish I’d known how hard it is to find the right team – a team that wants to grow in a fast-casual environment, where there aren’t the same accolades and recognition as there are in the restaurant business. It’s hard to retain solid team members who are just as invested in your startup as you are.

I also learned that you can’t scale manpower. When I started, there were a lot of late nights in the kitchen prepping for the next day. It soon became clear that I needed to find a better way to sustain both my own energy and the stamina of the business because we were pushed to our limits. We’re now working with a co-packer, which has been the best cost and energy-saving thing we could have done. Another lesson that I’d share with my younger self is that an accountant should be the first employee your hire. 

Why does sending money matter?

How do you stay in touch with friends and family back home?

We mostly stay connected through texting and calling on Viber and WhatsApp.

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Why do you believe that supporting your family or friends back home by sending money is important?

It relieves some of the financial pressure. It helps my family to get through the hard times, especially those who have a lack of resources or face challenges of unemployment. Also, my wife and I regularly send money to her sister and nieces in Brazzaville, Congo. Every dollar counts there, and what we’re able to send goes a long way.

What could a person in Ethiopia afford to buy with an extra $100?

It depends on where you spend that $100. In the rural areas of Ethiopia, $100 can go a lot further than in the capital city of Addis Ababa, where the economy is growing fast. I’d say, in a small village like Yetebon, for example, that amount could cover living necessities for a week or two.  

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