A Charm City wonder woman shares her story, and a message through food.
Baltimore restaurateur Irena Stein is among that rarefied group of interesting, accomplished women who defy easy categorization. She is a Baltimore-based artist and photographer, chef, immigrant, owner of celebrated restaurant Alma Cocina Latina, and local anti-hunger force to be reckoned with.
Irena Stein’s journey has taken her from Venezuelan Fulbright scholar in California to restaurant owner in Baltimore. (There was even a period cooking for NASA astronomers.) Her current work countering Baltimore’s current hunger crisis with nourishing, creative food — which also helps support the local food service economy and provide job training — has won much-deserved attention.
I interviewed Irena recently about her life, her many culinary accomplishments, and the importance of bridging the economic, racial, and nutritional class division through fresh, nourishing, sustainable food.
Hunger has been a particularly outsized issue in 2020. So has the struggle for food service workers and businesses to stay afloat. Irena’s current project, Alkimiah, supports both in a uniquely Irena Stein way. In other words: classy, thoughtful, and modern.
Irena has committed to permanently creating healthy, delicious, and well-balanced meals, free to communities in need. As of December 1, her Alma Cocina team, along with Alkimiah, and in partnership with Mera Kitchen Collective, has produced over 90,000 meals — and counting. Below, I interview Irena about her career evolution, her culinary philosophy, and feeding her community.
You’ll also like these other profiles: Anela Malik of Feed the Malik and Open Kitchen Founder and Owner Mary Johns
The Interview: Baltimore Restaurateur Irena Stein of Alma Cocina and Alkimiah
This interview took place on October 19, 2020. This article has been edited and condensed for space.
Lisa Ruland: I’d like to start at the beginning of your career evolution. You are a Venezuelan immigrant.
Yes. I came to America as a Fulbright scholar when I was 28 years old. I had done some cultural work in the United States states before that, though. There were two scholarships per country, and I got one of them.
I came to the U.S., finished my Master’s degree in cultural anthropology, and got married and had a daughter. I was living in San Francisco, so I asked this country if I could stay. I said I would repay my Fulbright, since I knew my candidacy was based on my going back to Venezuela.
They said no. I pleaded because I had a family and a life here now, and they denied me. So then I decided to stay in the United States anyway. I stayed illegally for many years. And then I thought: If I work for the Venezuelan consulate, it is like working for the country. So I went back to Venezuela, and returned with a diplomatic passport to work at the consulate in San Francisco.
It took me nine years to overturn my legal status, all by myself, because the lawyers would not take my case. And now I am an American citizen! That is why I am so concerned about immigration issues now. I am very close to the subject.
You have an undergraduate degree in social work, but have found a career in food and restaurants. Yet it seems like there is actually a connection to your undergraduate work, even though they may appear unrelated.
I think that’s totally correct. I think my view of food has always been connected to how I see the world. And I think that food has become a vehicle that completely puts together my background. Food is an essential vehicle for cultural understanding and well-being, so it makes total sense.
So how did you evolve into the food space?
During those years when I did not have legal status, I worked for an artist, doing jewelry design. I did that for 18 years. And then in 2002, after the Twin Towers came down in New York City, and in the following recession, the whole art world collapsed. I had to reinvent myself again.
I always cooked a lot. I loved it, and every time I cooked something, people would say, “Oh do you do catering?” My friends told people that I catered, even though it wasn’t true. So I started catering in the art world in Baltimore.
Then in 2004, a chef friend told me about the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is within Johns Hopkins but under the umbrella of NASA. There was a cafeteria there that was horrible. I got hired to run the cafeteria. Suddenly I was catering for brilliant astronomers. I had no idea about industrial kitchens or anything, but I just got in there and went for it. I had to put together a staff and remodel a kitchen and everyone was helping me. It was completely spontaneous.
What kind of food did you serve?
It was called Café Azafran. Everything from scratch, like you were eating from home every day. Everything was fresh, everything was natural. Because I was raised abroad, I never knew how to cook artificially. Every day we had specials and international food.
And the beautiful thing is that I was always geared toward community. Before, people would get their food to go, and take it back to their computers. But then when I took over, I decided to serve food on porcelain plates and people would stay and all talk. That was on purpose, to create a community where people would stay, and also to reduce waste. And then the mathematicians would meet and the French club would meet there, too.
Meanwhile, you also opened Alma Cocina Latina, which has gotten so many raves. What was the decision to open that?
Every week at Azafran, we were doing different food specials from a different part of the world, plus a regular menu of soups and sandwiches. And every time we made arepas — the staple food of Venezuela — people would go crazy, and in about 30 minutes we were sold out. So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to open a little arepa bar in Baltimore?”
I often go to Venezuela to visit my family (well, not right now because Covid), but the chef at a restaurant there told me there was a Venezuelan chef in Washington, D.C. who was available. So I got an award-winning Venezuelan chef [Enrique Limardo, now at acclaimed restaurant 7 Reasons in D.C.], and I was very lucky to find him.
He came up to Baltimore and the restaurant soon became very popular. No one really knew Venezuelan food, but people really responded to our approach, and also the atmosphere.
How do you describe Venezuelan cuisine?
It’s interesting. Just like our culture, it’s a mix. You have indigenous ingredients that come from the Amazon area and the Caribbean Ocean and the mountains, so we have very interesting ingredients very specific to each region. That alone makes the ingredients very unique. So that’s the indigenous food.
Then you also have the legacy of Spain and colonization. And food in the southern region comes from the northern part of Africa. We have African roots from the slave trade. The African population established itself mostly in the coastal regions. If you have a Venezuelan plate, you will always have a touch of sweet, such as plantain or fruit.
So the cuisine is very multicultural, just like the country. Now shifting gears a bit, when Covid struck, you had to pivot your business. Can you talk about that?
The week of the governor shut our doors for lockdown, that week of March 13, we immediately thought, “What are we going to do?” And we thought of our staff, because our chef is on an O-1 exceptional talent visa, and our staff is great and we want to keep them employed.
So with those concerns, we collaborated with Mera Kitchen Collective. Originally, Mera created an organization to employ refugee women, to give them culinary training as chefs. Then Covid came. So they were shut down, too.
People reached out and asked if they would do community meals because people were going to be unemployed, and hunger was going to be devastating. So Mera accepted that, and because we had our people unemployed as well, we joined forces and started preparing community meals.
This produced two phenomena. First, providing a living wage for everyone, $16 per hour; and 2) we were doing holistic food, a healthy, well-balanced meal with fresh vegetables.
Food is essential to every human being, so that is the reason we think that everyone should have the privilege of eating well. But current systems do not provide that. You have these [government provided] meals filled with a tremendous amount of carbs, and people continue to eat really bad food. It’s food just to fill your stomach, but what are you filling it with? So food policy has to change.
What is an example of one of your free community meals?
Very little red meat. Not even once a month. Mainly chicken and fish, and we do one vegetarian day each week. We give the vegetables a lot of flavor, not just boiled with salt. You’ll have a mix of broccoli and carrots and green beans with a cilantro-based sauce on top, and then a roasted or grilled animal protein, then a starch like potatoes or rice or couscous. We start at 7 a.m., and by 11 a.m. the communities come to pick up the food, unless we deliver.
The cost of the meal is very important. Government aid budgets us around $3 per meal. But through World Central Kitchen funding [a global food relief organization led by Jose Andres], we get $10 per meal, all private funds.
With $10, we have managed to not only give extraordinary meals and living wages, but a portion goes toward health benefits for our employees. It works because it’s sustainable. But $3 is not sustainable. It just perpetuates a bad cycle of bad food and no living wage.
What do you usually do for Thanksgiving, and will you be doing anything in particular for Thanksgiving as part of the Community Meals Initiative?
For many years now, I have not bought a turkey. I get duck or something, and we do all kinds of side dishes.
For me, Thanksgiving is every day, because life is every day. Good food should be on the table every day. Supporting life should be every day. Our commitment to the community should be there every day, not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And especially this year. So for us, it is Thanksgiving every day. We give thanks for being on this planet every day, and we share that bounty with everyone, every day.