THE WASHINGTON POST – Steps from the White House, Immigrant Food, the owners said, is a project that’s not about United States (US) President Donald Trump, even if it is largely a response to the policies and rhetoric of his administration.
“It’s one of the few things in Washington that’s not about Mr Trump,” said Peter Schechter, one of the three founders of the “cause-casual” restaurant in downtown Washington. “We’re in a period in the States where suddenly one of the most basic things about being an American is suddenly in doubt.”
To Schechter’s thinking, the thing in doubt is immigration, a divisive topic in America, especially illegal border crossings, but one that will animate Immigrant Food as it carries out its (possibly) cutting-edge missions.
The place celebrates the country’s immigrant history, offer meeting space to organisations dedicated to immigrant services, acts as an advocate on immigration issues and, not least importantly, serve bowls that fuse ingredients from various immigrant cuisines.
The bowls, incidentally, have been created by an immigrant, Enrique Limardo, the Venezuela-born chef at Seven Reasons.
All of this will be found at 1701 Pennsylvania Ave NW, less than a quarter-mile from the front gates of the most famous address in the District. Immigrant Food debuted on the day the Supreme Court began hearing arguments on Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, which provides legal protections and work permits to qualified people who were brought to the US as children. Hundreds of thousands of “dreamers,” as programme recipients are known, are covered under the programme.
With Immigrant Food, the founders are trying to pull off an artful balancing act.
They want to help immigrants, and the groups that support them, but don’t want to come off as partisans – or be lumped into the resistance movement against the President. (It’s worth noting that “political affiliation” is a protected trait in Washington, which means that restaurants can’t discriminate against diners based on their political party.)
As part of their media materials, the owners have handed out a paper on which are printed two columns: one for Who We Are and the other for Who We Are Not. Under the former, they list, among other acceptable descriptors, a “for-profit social enterprise” and a “new restaurant concept that fuses food and advocacy”. Under the latter, they specifically reject such labels as an “anti-Trump organisation” and a “one-time initiative to take advantage of the political moment”.
The sheet also takes pains to point out that Seven Reasons and Immigrant Food are separate enterprises, presumably to protect the former from any blowback.
The two-level space, designed by Washington-based DesignCase, the same firm that created the antique-shop/smelter-chic look of Maydan, will operate on at least a few levels. Customers can walk in and order one of Limardo’s bowls, such as the Viet Vibes or the Columbia Road.
The Viet Vibes bowl takes adobo-spiced chicken and pairs it with spicy rice noodles, cilantro, peanuts, mango and a spicy pho vinaigrette sauce, among other things, to channel the flavours of Vietnam and the Caribbean. The Columbia Road bowl (spice-rubbed steak, misir wat-esque lentils, pickled loroco, fresh cheese and more) honours Ethiopians and Salvadorans, two of Washington’s influential immigrant communities.
“At the beginning, I said this is going to be impossible,” said co-founder Limardo about assembling his bowls. “I mean, try to fuse all of that in just one menu. It’s like 20 restaurants working at the same time.”
But after countless evenings of mixing and matching ingredients from all over the world, the chef came to the conclusion that, “You can almost fuse everything, because it’s chemistry, in the end.”
There is a second menu next to the main one. It offers no food or drink. The “engagement” menu asks customers to give something of themselves: their time, their talents, their cash or all of the above. Immigrant Food has partnered with five non-profit groups to help them identify volunteers or collect donations to tackle a wide range of issues: legal representation in immigration courts, naturalisation workshops, English-as-a-second-language classes, even training on how to handle interviews with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
What’s more, these organisations are able to use part of the Immigrant Food space for board meetings, media briefings or workshops. Some non-profit groups, Schechter said, have an urgent need for meeting spaces because they don’t have conference rooms of their own.
Finally, Immigrant Food will engage customers on the issues, via stories, statistics, videos and more in an online monthly magazine of sorts called the Think Table. First on the agenda for Immigrant Food is DACA. On the restaurant’s website, you’ll find background information and interviews on the subject and about what’s at stake as the Supreme Court decides the fate of dreamers.
“Nobody’s going to force it down their throats,” Schechter said of the advocacy component. “If somebody wants to come and just eat, that’s fine. But we believe that people wake up in the morning and read the headlines on immigration and said, ‘This is horrible’, but they don’t know what to do about it. So we want to engage them, that there are things they can do about it.”
Immigrant Food’s founders have, apparently, coined a term to describe the work of their offbeat business. The owners call it “gastroadvocacy”, and the concept appears to represent something new for the restaurant industry. Immigrant Food may be the next evolution in culinary activism, following in the footsteps of such groups as Emma’s Torch in Brooklyn (which provides culinary training for refugees, survivors of human trafficking and others), Tanabel in Brooklyn (which employs refugee women to prepare Middle Eastern meals) or the People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland (which hosts communal gatherings to share food, stories and political knowledge).
Immigrant Food no doubt ups the ante on traditional corporate social responsibility, such as: KFC’s decision to buy only chickens raised without anti-biotics important for human medicine or Starbucks’ plan to phase out single-use plastic straws by 2020.
Immigrant Food, after all, is a for-profit restaurant company – with ambitions to open other locations – behaving like a non-profit that wants to educate and motivate others to take action for immigrants.
Yet there is risk involved in this business plan, said Aaron Allen, whose consulting group works with major restaurant chains on various issues, including corporate social responsibility.
“What will be interesting is how polarising this may potentially become,”
Allen said. Immigrant Food, he added, hasn’t expressly gone after Trump in its public statements or media materials, but “it’s an undercurrent to what they’re doing”.
This approach could potentially alienate a segment of customers, Allen said, and that “gets away from the spirit of what the hospitality industry is supposed to do”.
Then again, if you review Schechter’s career, it almost reads like a prelude to Immigrant Food. In the early 1990s, Schechter, 60, co-founded a strategic communications firm that worked with Fortune 500 companies and foreign governments.
He has advised political campaigns around the globe. He has invested in José Andrés restaurants. He co-manages a goat farm in Virginia. He speaks six languages.
And he, like his partners in Immigrant Food, has visceral connections to other countries. He’s a first-generation American, born in Rome to immigrant parents – his father was from Vienna and his mother from Hamburg – who became naturalised US citizens.
After living in Latin America for years, the family moved to Washington when Schechter was 15. Limardo, 44, moved to the US just five years ago from Venezuela. He left his homeland when the economy and the political situation “made it impossible to live there,” he said.
A classically trained chef who once had his own restaurants in Caracas, Limardo landed in Baltimore in 2014 and quickly became a star all over again at Alma Cocina Latina.
The third founder of Immigrant Food is Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger, 32, a native of Argentina and a partner with Limardo in Seven Reasons. He came to the US shortly after receiving his economic degree from the Universidad Católica Argentina in 2010. Before moving into the restaurant business, he had a public affairs firm focussed on Latin American companies.
The founders’ first-generation immigrant tales are, in a sense, the glue that binds them in this project.
“Whether you’re the sons or daughters of Irish immigrants or a fifth-generation Polish immigrant or a first-generation Chinese immigrant, that’s what America is,” Schechter said. “I felt like this was a time to really be proud of it.”