The Venezuelan chef of one of D.C.’s most celebrated new restaurants has collaborated with two foreign policy wonks on his latest venture, a fast-casual place a block away from the White House that aims to represent immigrant cultures with flavor combinations like Peruvian-Chinese, Swedish-Irish, and Ethiopian-Salvadoran.
Immigrant Food officially opens tomorrow at 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue NW with nine bowls from Seven Reasons chef Enrique Limardo. Each weaves through the story of migration patterns in D.C.
The restaurant also serves fusion in the form of what it calls “gastroadvocacy.” The owners say they’re offering rent-free space to non-governmental organizations looking to hold English classes, legal clinics, and job search services for immigrants in D.C. Along with its food and drink menu, Immigrant Food will also have a rotating digital engagement menu that tells customers how to support immigrants, whether by volunteering at one of the nonprofits, donating money, or signing a petition.
Bowl options at the counter include a “Columbia Road” dish that represents two of D.C.’s largest immigrant populations with ingredients from Ethiopia and El Salvador. The bowl, named after the Adams Morgan street that was once a haven for expats of both countries, combines spice-rubbed steak, lentils, and roasted tomatoes with corn, onions, peppers, seasoned potatoes, pickled loroco flower buds, Salvadoran cheese, tortilla chips, and alguashte vinegar seasoning. A “Filipino Rice And Grains” bowl, which draws from the Philippines and Sub-Saharan Africa, includes adobo-spiced chicken, orange coconut rice, cauliflower, toasted quinoa, jalapeno peppers, and pickled banana.
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While developing the menu, Limardo researched D.C. immigration and population patterns, then looked back on history to determine where certain ingredients originated.
“I pulled everything together in a piece of paper going … through countries, the spices that they use in their countries, ingredients by countries, and then started crossing lines, trying to connect countries,” Limardo says. “It was like a spiderweb — very confusing at the first time, but … it was a perfect way to start connecting flavors and why I can substitute some ingredients for others.”
Limardo took a similar tack with dairy-free “fusion mylks” like a Southeast Asian “Pink Dragon” that includes dragon fruit, cardamom, yellow raisins, blue agave, and coconut milk.
The chef and his partners aimed for a funky marketplace vibe in the restaurant, turning to Maydan architect Michelle Bove and Sommer Moore of DesignCase. Tapestries from around the world adorn the restaurant’s walls along with photos commissioned from Colombian photographer Luis German Gomez that show immigrants at the table.
Limardo, whose abstract plating and modern Latin American cooking at Seven Reasons led the restaurant to a No. 1 ranking in Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema’s fall dining guide, has some familiar partners at Immigrant food.
Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger, an Argentine political consultant, is also a co-owner at Seven Reasons. Peter Schechter, a global affairs specialist who served on the board of José Andrés‘s ThinkFoodGroup for 14 years, is a Seven Reasons investor who is credited as the “intellectual author” of the Immigrant Food model.
Schechter, the former founding director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, was born in Rome to U.S. citizen parents from Austria and Germany. He used his connections to secure five local nonprofits that will use free office space at the restaurant.
According to Schechter, the goal of the restaurant is to celebrate immigrants’ contributions to American culture and advocate for their place in the future. Schechter says the restaurant is not opening in opposition to President Donald Trump, who has painted Mexican immigrants with denigrating stereotypes while launching hard-line policies that separate families at the southern border. But the new restaurateur does mimic the president’s language in a pointed way.
“It’s immigrants who have — to such a large extent — have built this country, have grown this country, have created innovation, and energy, and jobs,” Schechter says. “And so, I really do believe that immigrants have made America great, again, and again, and again.”
Another advocacy arm of the new business is the Think Table, a digital magazine that uses videos, infographics, and short articles written by experts to dive into topics surrounding immigration. Téa Ivanovic, Immigrant Food’s director of communications and outreach, oversees the project. She was born in Belgium to parents from the former Yugoslavia.
The first issue centers on “Dreamers,” young, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and identify as Americans. Immigrant Food opens the same day the Supreme Court will hear arguments to determine the legality of the president’s plan to terminate a program protecting an estimated 700,000 Dreamers from deportation.
In Schechter’s view, the story of America is the story of immigrants, and at the restaurant, diners will have an opportunity to take selfies in front of a map of the world and email the photo, emblazoned with “We’re all immigrants,” to themselves.
That sentiment may miss the mark for some people, because it discounts Native Americans. Refugees and descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to the United States against their will might not identify with the sentiment, either.
“We always say... ‘We’re all immigrants’ unless you’re a Native American, because we’ve all come from somewhere, including African Americans — certainly not voluntarily,” Schechter says.