Washington, D.C., usually brings to mind thoughts of the White House, Capitol Hill and more government buildings. The hub of all things politics is also home to a growing immigrant community.
Immigrants make up 14% of the District's population, a number which is expected to rapidly grow. This growth reflects trends in other cities both large and small — and it also speaks to the longstanding history of immigrant culture in the U.S.
Yet this history is also marred by a painful legacy of discrimination, policy arguments, and even violence. In recent years, some immigrant communities reported an increase in discriminatory behavior. Notably, these numbers grew during the Trump administration, a moment in history where anti-immigrant rhetoric was perhaps filled with more hate, false statements and vitriol than any other time in recent memory.
Opening only a block away from the White House in 2019, one District restaurant decided to fight this narrative. Immigrant Food sought to counter pervasive stereotypes and misinformation about immigrants in the U.S. — and it opted to serve really great food while doing so.
"I wanted to create a restaurant that really celebrated and served fantastic and delicious food from some of the largest immigrant groups in the United States but also really celebrated immigration — and did so in a way that includes advocacy for immigrants and their needs," Immigrant Food co-founder Peter Schechter said.
Co-founded with Venuezluean chef Enrique Limardo, Schechter, a Italy-born foreign policy wonk and food enthusiast, has worked with teammates to create a restaurant that represents the diversity and ingenuity of flavors and spices from immigrant communities around the world. From Filipino rice and grains to noodle dishes inspired by Vietnam and the Caribbean, Immigrant Food has striven to be more than a restaurant. According to Chief Operating Officer Téa Ivanovic, it's also working to be a center of necessary activism and dialogue.
"Food has forever unified people," Ivanovic wrote to Salon Food. "For someone unfamiliar with the issues facing immigrants in America, it's daunting to jump into the complex topic of immigration without a baseline understanding of what immigrants contribute economically, culturally and politically to our country. But it's a lot less tough to sit down with a group of friends and learn about how your favorite dishes or flavors have come from immigrant cultures across the globe."
Since opening in the District, Limardo, with the help of fellow Venuzuelan chef Mile Montezuma, has served up flavors from China and El Salvador to Ethiopia and Peru that have impressed numerous diners living in or passing through the nation's capital. Like most restaurants, the food is central to the mission, but its values and goals extend far beyond what's on the plate.
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Immigrant Food's brand of "gastroadvocacy" includes informing patrons about how they can get involved with immigrant advocacy efforts in their communities. The restaurant also uses its platform to talk about the challenges faced by immigrants in this country, including language access issues. It has partnered with organizations like José Andrés' World Food Kitchen and NGOs, as well as established a think tank to discuss women's issues — issues which are intersectional with immigrant rights, according to Ivanovic.
"Immigrant rights and women's rights are deeply intersectional, and it's difficult to talk about one without addressing the other," Ivanovic said. "As both women and immigrants, these women face unique challenges related to that identity and pay discrimination."
Today, Immigrant Food continues to be active in the Washington community. A second location, Immigrant Food+, opened in the recently unveiled Planet World Museum. An elevated version of the fast-casual (or cause-casual, as the establishment defines itself) restaurant, it highlights spices and flavors from the world's seven continents. With a menu crafted by Limardo, this partnership is part of an effort to demonstrate the evolution of language and how it impacts culture, behavior and beliefs.
While it reflects the ongoing mission of the Immigrant Food to serve meals that keep diners coming back, it also address challenges that impact the country. From amplifying the message and history of the Black Lives Matter movement to talking about food insecurity, no topic is off the table.
"Food is a unifier, but food inequality is also something that needs to be addressed," Schechter said. "The way that food can be a place of dialogue, a place in which one can sit around the table and resolve issues — it's truly a tool for change."
For Ivanovic, Immigrant Food can be the starting point for even greater change.
"Our hope in Immigrant Food is to get people comfortable with just how ingrained immigrant contributions are in their daily lives as a first step and lean into the deeper conversations from there."
Courtesy of chefs Enrique Limardo and Mile Montezuma, this recipe was created to honor Vice President Kamala Harris' Jamaican and Indian heritage.
Recipe: Madam VP's Heritage Bowl
- 2 1/4 cup oven roasted chicken
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tbsp curry paste
- 1 1/4 cup coconut milk
- 1 2/3 cup diced potatoes
- 3 1/4 cup chickpeas
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1 bunch green onions
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- 1/2 tsp coriander
Put all ingredients except green onions and cilantro into a pot. Cook until potatoes are tender and the stew is thick. Once off the heat, add cilantro and green onions and take out the star anise and cinnamon stick.
Assemble a bowl with 2 oz. of rice per person, 2 oz. of plantains (fresh/frozen plantains baked in oven), slices of serrano pepper (to taste), and 1.5 oz. spring mix per person. Top with chicken curry and dressing to taste.
- 2 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 tbsp parsley flakes
- 1 tsp ground allspice
- 1/4 tsp cardamom
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 3 1/4 tbsp white vinegar
Put all ingredients in blender and blend until smooth.
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