FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) — As a first generation Indian-American, Franklin businesswoman Renuka Christoph has a passion for spreading the message about the importance of cultural inclusion.

Christoph's late father, Rama Bharadwaj, and her mother, Kamlesh Bharadwaj, moved to America from Dehradun, India, in 1970.

Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Christoph's father was the director of international students at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

"I grew up around international people all my life," Christoph said.

Her parents embraced their role with the students, often assisting them well beyond the scope of Bharadwaj's position at the school.

"They were like an uncle and aunt to the students. Many of them had never seen snow and were unprepared for Wisconsin winters," she said.

The Bharadwajs would take the students to the store to buy coats and other necessities, and international guests were a mainstay in the family's home. "I think my love and passion for ethnic food and ethnic people stems from being exposed to those cultures all my life."

Christoph credits her parents' welcoming and generous spirits as the foundation for her desire to facilitate opportunities for individuals to be exposed to other cultures as a way to encourage an appreciation for cultural differences.

She believes that food is a very powerful way to create cross-cultural connections.

"When people break bread together, their guard comes down. A mutual appreciation for cuisine helps to bridge cultural gaps," she said.

Christoph founded "Nations in Our Neighborhood" (NiON) as an initiative to promote ethnic dining in the greater Nashville area.

NiON's first endeavor is called "Passport to the Nations in Our Neighborhood." The program offers a taste of global cuisine at 15 international restaurants, each representing a different country.

"The self-guided tour will provide passport holders a unique opportunity to sample chefs' creations at ethnic restaurants around the city. The tour is designed as a FAM (familiarization) tour, offering great value while acquainting the Nashville community with our diverse populations, their culture and cuisine," Christoph said.

Passport holders will be entitled to a complimentary chef's sample plate from each participating restaurant from June 8 to Oct. 4, access to a prix fixe dinner at each restaurant and one home delivered ethnic meal (valued at $34.95).

A different restaurant/country will be featured each week during the program, during which a prix fixe chef's specialty dinner will be offered for $21.95.

Savory Spice in downtown Franklin has partnered with NiON as the exclusive brick and mortar location at which to purchase the passport. The passports are $39.99 and can also be purchased online at nationsinourneighborhood.com. (In-store purchases at Savory Spice are cash only.)

"People are often intimidated by international food," said Hollie Rollins, owner of Savory Spice. "This is such a smart program because it offers exposure to 15 different cuisines with very little risk involved."

Participants who choose to purchase their passport at Savory Spice will receive a complimentary bag of ethnic spices with their purchase.

"Coming into (Savory Spice) is like taking a trip across the world. Each country has a 'flavor' and those flavors are connected to the spices used in that region. You can have three pieces of the same chicken but flavor each one differently — like, for example, prepare one with Greek spices, one with Indian spices and one with Mexican spices, and you'll end up with three very unique dishes," Rollins said.

A kick-off party for the Passport to the Nations in Our Neighborhood will take place 5-9 p.m. June 1 at Plaza Mariachi and will include festivities, Mexican food and drinks.

Participants can get their passport stamped at each restaurant they visit during the duration of the program with the goal of filling up the entire passport.

The Bavarian Bierhaus will host a closing ceremony on Oct. 4 with live music, food, drinks and festivities. The first 50 participants to attend the closing ceremony with a completed passport will receive a complimentary beer stein and open keg privileges.

A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition.

The message that Christoph hopes this initiative will promote is "to defy prejudice, racism and bigotry and embrace the nations in our neighborhood."

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Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com