After breakout success, building a new restaurant around the immigrant palate.
By Enrique Limardo as told to Lola Méndez
My earliest food memories are from when I was living with my grandmother in Caracas, Venezuela. She was always cooking Venezuelan dishes, and I was always chasing her in the kitchen trying to get a taste of the things she was preparing. I was especially fond of her pastries, cookies, and cakes. I had a serious sweet tooth, but as a child I liked everything. I didn’t help her much, I just ate everything.
She used to make pastel de chucho, a soup made from fish. In Venezuela, we prepare it like lasagna but instead of layers of pasta, we use sweet plantains, white Venezuelan cheese, and the fish stew. It’s very delicious—a little spicy, a little sweet, and cheesy.
It was easy for me to understand food. When I was 14, I told my parents I wanted to be a chef. My father told me I was crazy and needed to finish school, go to university, and have a “real career.” He was an engineer, and my mother was an architect.
So instead, I became a cook for my friends. When we’d get together I’d be responsible for the shopping list and feeding my friends. I was studying architecture at university. I love art. But a few years into my program, I knew that architecture wasn’t for me, and I had to become a chef. I was fortunate to discover that I express myself better through food than through paint or architecture.
I was 19 and told my father again that I wanted to be a chef. My father finally understood that cooking is the thing I love. I began my gastronomic studies in Venezuela at the cooking school La Casserole du Chef. When I was 20 I moved to Spain and stayed for six years studying first in San Sebastian at a Luis Irizar Cooking school, and then in Barcelona at San Paul de Mar.
I created a bridge between food and architecture. With cooking, you need a sense of aesthetics and how to build something. When I cook something, I think about the perfect texture. Then, I think about color before I start thinking about flavors. What flavors combine with that color? Then I start composing and constructing a plate. That’s my way of creation.
I moved back to Venezuela with my wife at the time when I was 26. We wanted to open a restaurant in Venezuela in 2002, but the economics and politics were very complicated. We decided to migrate again and went to Mexico. I got a job in Cancun working as an executive chef in a five-star hotel for about a year. I learned a lot, but working in a big hotel wasn’t for me, so I quit and we moved back to Venezuela with the same idea of opening a restaurant. Unfortunately, it was still impossible.
I moved to Barbados to learn English. It’s very difficult to get permission to work in Barbados, so I only stayed a year before going back to Venezuela again. I was determined that no matter what, I was going to open a restaurant. The third time was the charm.
Paprika was a tiny restaurant. I had six employees. We survived for about two years. By chance, one of the biggest restaurateurs ate at my restaurant and loved it. He asked me to open a similar restaurant but in a better location. So we took the business to downtown Caracas and opened Yantar—which means “eat” in Latin—with 75 seats and 35 employees. It was very successful. We were open for five years and achieved many accolades, including the best restaurant in Caracas.
In 2009, the politics and economy in Venezuela went down so badly. It was a struggle every day to buy a pound of sugar. It was very difficult to find simple things like salt or flour. I decided to sell the restaurant. A few days later I received a life-changing call from one of my best customers.
He wanted to hire me to be his private chef. I had never considered being a private chef. But, I needed to support my family, so I worked for him until 2014. He was a billionaire and I traveled with him around the world. We lived in Dubai and spent a lot of time in Italy, France, and all around the Caribbean. In Venezuela, we had to cook with limits. We had to be careful about spending money to maintain the reserve. During that time, I was able to cook without any limits. It was one of the most powerful experiences in my life.
Venezuela was still a mess, and I was tired of traveling all the time. I wanted to settle down. We began to explore the idea of immigrating to the United States. It was very tough because I didn’t know anybody in the States. I had no network. I went to Washington DC and started looking for work. I was very depressed. My family was in Venezuela, and I was in the States by myself.
I tried to find someone to sponsor me. I came here with a tourist visa, and it was about to expire. I had so much anxiety, but I’m very resilient. If I fall, I’m going to stand up again and again. I missed my family so much. I spent nights crying. I missed my food. It was very sad. Being alone and completely out of your comfort zone is like floating in space. I had no job, no life. I couldn’t find someone to sponsor me. Emotionally it was very, very tough.
Fortunately, my wife’s brother lived in Miami and had an event company, so eventually, he was able to help me get a work visa after about a year and a half in the States. Soon after, a chef called me from Venezuela. He said to me, “I have a lady here sitting in my restaurant looking for a chef to open a Latin restaurant in Baltimore.” She wanted to open a Venezuelan restaurant with global influence. I told her I was the guy for the job. She believed so deeply in our roots.
The menu and aesthetics for Alma Cocina Latina were my responsibility to create. I was the executive chef there for about almost five years. We were doing arepas, and no one else was doing that. We transformed the food scene in Baltimore. Now there’s Latino influence on many restaurant menus.
We won the best restaurant in Baltimore for two years consecutively, and I won Baltimore Magazine’s best chef in Baltimore in 2016 and 2017. We were awarded three and a half out of four stars by Tom Sietsema, food critic for the Washington Post. No restaurant in Baltimore had gotten that high of a rating before. People asked me how much money I paid for the review. I didn’t know who the writer was. I had never seen his face and had no idea he came to the restaurant.
Opportunities started surrounding me. I had to believe in myself and listen to my intuition. There have been so many moments in my career that were the perfect time, the perfect moment, the perfect everything. When I look back and connect the dots, I see the big picture.
At the end of 2016, a group of investors approached me. They loved the way I cooked and had an idea to open a rotisserie chicken place with a speakeasy bar at the back, so I joined the team that created Chicken+Whiskey in DC. I’m still a business partner at the restaurant. Around the same time, I created Seven Reasons in DC with my Argentine business partner, Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger. He’s an economist and political consultant. He had eaten at Alma, and one day he asked if I wanted to open a restaurant in Washington DC together. We opened with a little hope, all the possible motivations, and tried to do our best. We never expected all the accolades we achieved, including recognition from the Washington Post, Esquire, and more.
We immigrants have contributed everything to gastronomy in the States. Without immigrants, there’s no food at all. We carry our culture in our palate. Every time we migrate, we carry and share our culture. When you have a gathering of immigrants, we always bring something to eat. We share everything on the table.
So I didn’t hesitate when Italian immigrant Peter Schechter proposed the idea of Immigrant Food to me. I obviously fell in love. As an immigrant, he understood my story and how we can support immigrants in this country. We’re an advocacy restaurant and partner with NGOs to let them use our upstairs space for English classes, legal advice, and other gatherings. Supporting immigrants is the core of everything we do. We source as much as possible from local farms, immigrant-run farms, and refugees. We work with a kitchen collective for Syrian refugees.
A restaurant was the right establishment to support immigrants in the country’s capital because we have to be proud and show our culture. There’s no better place than DC, which is a very multicultural city. When we first opened in November 2019, I was a bit scared as we’re located just a few blocks away from the White House. When we found the location, I told Peter we’re crazy. But, we actually received orders from there. We don’t know for who, but sometimes we get over 20 orders from the White House.
We celebrate immigration through food. Making the menu was a huge challenge. It’s like 20 restaurants inside of one. I took a piece of paper and made a very detailed spider web with countries, ingredients, and spices. I started to notice certain ingredients repeating in different places. I started to think about how I can create something to represent El Salvador and Ethiopia. Both country’s cuisines consist of rice, spice, and plantains. I created a fusion between Ethiopian and Salvadorian. It was gorgeous, but I lost half of my hair creating the menu. My beard is now completely white.
I love our partnership with Tables Without Borders that helps refugees. They’re the real chefs from those countries. We work with them side by side to create truly authentic food. I’m growing my creativity every time we do something with one of those chefs. Last week I spent time cooking with a chef from the Ivory Coast. He tasted the dish, and he said it tasted as if his mother made it. We dream of opening an Immigrant Food restaurant in every state and bringing these dishes to everyone!
Being the chef of Immigrant Food feels like achieving a lifelong dream. It gives me the motivation to keep going. I don’t work. I play every day.