Venezuelan Fulbright Scholar Brings Soulful Food to Baltimore

In 2015, when Irena Stein opened Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood, the food world took notice. “The best restaurant to open for years in the Southeast Baltimore neighborhood,” said The Baltimore Sun. The Washington Post told readers they should “prepare to be dazzled” by both the Venezuelan cuisine and the service. And in 2017, Alma was a runner-up for Baltimore Magazine’s Best Overall Restaurant.

“It has been so well-received. People are discovering another region of the world,” says Stein, who is delighted to share the food of her native Venezuela in her adopted city. But like many immigrant entrepreneurs, Stein is contributing more than just her culture. Her three Maryland restaurants generate about $2.4 million in annual revenue and employ 37 people, about half of whom are U.S.-born.

Stein didn’t set out to be a restaurateur when she arrived in the United States as a Fulbright scholar in 1980. She came to study cultural anthropology at Stanford University, in California. But life takes unexpected turns, and for Stein that meant falling in love, getting married and having her first child.

Her scholar visa required that she return to South America after her two-year fellowship ended, regardless of her marital status. Stein tried to return the fellowship money, but it was refused. So she found a way to remain with her family and “return to Venezuela,” taking an unpaid position in the Venezuelan consulate in San Francisco. “I created a job. It gave me a way to be in Venezuela and not be in Venezuela,” she says.

After Stein got her green card, a process that took nine years, she became a jewelry designer and, in 1998, moved to Baltimore to enjoy the city’s affordability and thriving arts scene. But after 9/11, the art market tanked and she realized she would have to reinvent herself once again. She started catering out of her home and, in 2004, took over the Alma Cocina Latina café at the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University. It’s the kind of entrepreneurial risk-taking that comes naturally to immigrants in Maryland’s Third Congressional District —  where the foreign-born are 38.1 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs than are the U.S.-born.

At the café, Stein has designed menus with interesting, healthy, and seasonal meals for astrophysicists, professors, and staffers. “I wanted it to be a community place where people no longer would have to eat out of a plastic container in front of their computers, but could really sit down and talk over lunch,” she says. “It has become an amazing center for dialogue, where people discuss concepts, theories, ideas, and share interdisciplinary knowledge.”

Would you boycott the Orioles for hiring Venezuelan players?

At Alma Cocina Latina, the staff is made of immigrants and native-born Americans, though Stein says immigrants dominate the kitchen. “We need people in the kitchen who are familiar with certain flavors, spices and herbs, and are able to understand their combinations,” she says. “In Latin America, you get that training at home when you’re a kid, so it becomes completely natural. That is a very important issue for restaurants like mine that are full flavor and incorporate a lot of foreign ingredients.”

Stein would like to see an immigration policy that does a better job of aligning the economic needs of the country with the skills of newcomers to ensure that restaurants like hers can get the talent they need, at all levels.

Alma’s executive chef, Enrique Limardo, came to the United States on a visa for people with exceptional talent, due to his extraordinary career in gastronomy. However, Stein notes that many people still believe that “exceptional talent” cannot possibly apply to the world of kitchens. “We get threats from people, ‘You are hiring immigrants. We should boycott your establishment!’ ” she says. “And I say, ‘Would you boycott the Orioles for hiring Venezuelan players?”

Stein also invites these critics to come and experience the restaurant for themselves, though none have taken her up on it. That’s too bad, she says, because if they experienced the food and the ambiance they might understand that excellence exists outside the world of sports. “We need to recognize that immigrants have a diversity of talents and a lot to contribute,” she says.

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