HGN: Refugee’s catering venture brings Sudan to Memphis tables
Ibtisam Salih’s dream is to own her own business. She certainly has the credentials.
She spent seven years at Caritas Village where she prepared food from a variety of cultures ranging from Italian and Mexican to authentic fare from her home of Sudan.
In fact, it’s those traditional Sudanese soups that makes Salih famous in the Binghampton neighborhood. Specialties like her creamy chicken soup get special recognition at Ibti’s Soup and Catering.
Now a figure in the immigrant-rich neighborhood of Binghampton, Salih was a stranger not too long ago.
Originally from North Sudan, Salih left that country for Egypt where she and her family lived for a few years before coming to Memphis in 1999.
She never wanted to leave Sudan, but a new government threatened Salih’s journalist husband. Several of his friends were caught and killed, but Salih’s family made it to Egypt where they started a center for Sudanese culture.
The United Nations stepped in, and Salih’s family found their way to Memphis in February 1999. Salih has degrees in philosophy and psychology, and her husband’s degree is in theater.
But the couple found themselves starting over in Memphis. Salih worked warehouse jobs while her husband went back to school to pursue a master’s degree.
In 2006, Salih was laid off from her warehouse job. Luckily, Onie Johns, founder of Caritas Village, called and offered Salih a job.
While Salih had never worked in the food industry, she was drawn to the family atmosphere at Caritas, a restaurant and community center that caters to Binghampton’s immigrant population.
Salih prepared food at Caritas and served as kitchen manager for five years. She learned to cook everything, but her soups quickly became a hit. In Sudan, it is customary to eat soup three times a day, Salih said.
She took a job at Nike where she works weekends to help save money for her future business. A friend at Memphis Servant Leadership connected Salih to The Commons on Merton, a converted church that houses nonprofits and refugee-related programming. That connection brought her to the Binghampton Development Corp. and its commercial kitchen, which provided Salih the opportunity to prepare food for friends.
“We’ve known Ibti for a number of years,” said Noah Gray, executive director at the BDC. “Her soups are amazing. She was someone we kept in mind when we renovated our commercial kitchen. It was included to support some kind of economic opportunity in the neighborhood.”
Salih hopes to learn some of the technical aspects of running a business through her relationship with the FreshLo project with Little Bird Innovation and the BDC. As she gets the business up and running, she plans to launch a menu and grow her clientele through word of mouth.
While Caritas Village was her first professional experience cooking for others, it was second nature back home in North Sudan. She was one of five sisters all taught to cook by their mother.
When extended family would visit on the weekend – a regular occurrence – each girl took turns preparing food for the visits.
Salih has been in Memphis for nearly 18 years, which is long enough to learn new cultures. With her new catering business she wants to mix her Sudanese culture with some American highlights.
Beyond catering for events of any size, Salih’s long-term dream is to open a restaurant. She is proud of her time at Caritas Village, and believes that experience helped prepare her for a life of food entrepreneurship.