Kai Gardner Mishlove

“Food connects people across cultures, world views and walks of life. It’s nourishment for the soul and a testimony of faith, perseverance and new beginnings.”

Kai Gardner Mishlove

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2021 Woman of Faith helps refugees build bridges by breaking bread

Local restaurateur Caitlin Cullen met Kai Yael Gardner Mishlove on a frigid Milwaukee Sunday in a room of mostly strangers. They gathered to talk about a pop-up dinner series for refugees who had been granted asylum in Milwaukee. Kai’s vision was to sell tickets for dinners prepared by the refugees to provide income for their families. Kai also envisioned a far greater good: to build bridges between diverse cultures. That vision inspired Caitlin to nominate Kai for the Sisters of the Divine Savior 2021 Woman of Faith Award.

Caitlin describes Kai’s aha moment. “Kai’s inspiration began with voluntary home visits to refugee women in the Milwaukee area. Every household was always cooking and offered food as a form of welcome. Over time, friendships grew over a common bond – food.” After sharing her idea with these newfound friends, Kai launched Tables Across Borders (TAB). Caitlin says, “In just a matter of weeks, Kai set up a three-month, six-dinner-series fundraiser highlighting cuisine from five different countries.” She also points out that Kai runs TAB as a volunteer. “Kai devotes much of her free time to facilitate understanding of our ‘new neighbors’ who have walked very different paths and need support to adjust to a new life in the U.S.”

Rev. Christie Melby-Gibbons endorsed Kai’s nomination for the Woman of Faith Award. She runs Tricklebee Café, one of three local restaurants that hosted the first dinner series. Christie says, “It’s delightful to see the chefs in our kitchens, making their traditional food to share with people who may have never had anything like it.”

After the first dinner series, TAB hosted four more events from September 2019 through February 2020. It raised more than $16,000 to support refugee chefs’ families from 10 different nations. When the pandemic struck, Caitlin’s Tandem Restaurant partnered with World Central Kitchen to continue supporting the refugee chefs and help struggling local restaurants. Others followed Tandem’s lead, including Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church Hungry Hearts Community Meals program and Milwaukee restaurants Amilinda and Damascus Gate.

TAB also pivoted to online cooking events in collaboration with Milwaukee’s Lynden Sculpture Garden. The refugee chefs prepared cuisine from different countries with themes ranging from samosas, rice, wots (stews), desserts, breads and vegetables. Each real-time event featured chefs from different countries sharing recipes and cooking techniques. The online events continued to generate income and offered the chefs training and exposure. Kai adds, “It also heightened awareness of the refugees’ positive contributions to our Milwaukee landscape. It has been an incredible blessing and honor to witness their resilience and experience the beauty of their cultures, and connect that to my own.”

In April 2021, Kai accepted a position with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation as Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Despite the demands of her new job, she remains dedicated to Tables Across Boarders. Caitlin says, “When I read the criteria for the Woman of Faith Award, I see a checklist of everything Kai is: servant, empath, teacher and translator.” Rev. Christie agrees: “She is truly a carrier of the light, and she freely shines in whatever she does and wherever she goes. Kai is kind, empowering, joyful … and is a gifted community organizer.”

Learn more at facebook.com/Amilindatandemtricklebee/