Passionate about food and immigration, a Baltimore restaurateur and partners are making their community meals a permanent thing.
By Irena Stein as told to Chris Mohney
Irena Stein is the owner of Alma Cocina Latina in Baltimore, a restaurant that reoriented during the pandemic to become a community relief kitchen. Now in a new location, Stein and her partners have made the community meal initiative permanent in the form of Alkimiah.
I’ve been through many stages in life. First I was in the social sciences as an anthropologist for 18 years. Then I came to the U.S. to do a master’s degree in cultural anthropology. Then I was in the arts. After September 11, I had to reinvent myself because the arts was not an option financially with a daughter in college. Everyone pushed me towards food because that was my passion. Every time I made food, people would say, “You should go into the restaurant business.” I would say, “I don’t want any of that. I want to love making food. I know that people burn out.”
Now, my kitchen is made up of a lot of different nationalities from Central and South America. When the pandemic hit, there was an immediate need to address the situation of possible unemployment for our kitchen staff that are not American and do not have access to unemployment.
Coming from a country like Venezuela that has lived in a crisis constantly for the past 23 years, I immediately jumped on this reality that was going to descend upon us. I’m used to reading crisis, and looking at crisis, and sharing crises. I knew that this was not going to be an easy ride for Baltimore in particular, because Baltimore already suffers deep levels of poverty and racial discrimination, and all kinds of food apartheid and other divides.
Before the pandemic, we had worked closely with Mera Kitchen Collective, a small catering company that is very loved in Baltimore. It is known for employing mainly women from the Middle East and from Africa, giving them the opportunity to cook using their cultural traditions as a way of supporting and integrating themselves as refugees in the city of Baltimore. Because I myself am very close to the subject of immigration for many, many years, we’ve always found a very good basis for anything we do together.
When the pandemic began, Emily Lerman, who is cofounder of Mera, immediately got requests for meals from the communities that she knows in Baltimore. At the time, she had very few chefs and cooks in place because, during the pandemic, women addressed the situation by staying home with their kids whose schools got interrupted. Our team at Alma joined their team at Mera, and we started producing a vast amount of meals from day one. We’ve produced more than 100,000 meals since March 16th of 2020.
It’s been a fantastic, fantastic transformation of how we think about food, how we think about our belonging to a city, what it means to belong to a city, what it means to be a food professional in this kind of circumstance. We decided to commit in the long term to helping in every possible way via food to transform the city.
We didn’t want to do indoor dining when it was allowed. We didn’t have all the filtrations in place. It was all very new, and we weren’t sure what kind of filtrations we needed. So we did takeout, and for four months we worked in a rented kitchen for the meals. We just reopened Alma at the beginning of 2021 as Alma To-Go. The mayor just reopened the restaurants at 25 percent capacity for indoor dining. Now we have magnificent filtration, and we have 10 feet between the tables. The environment is as safe as it can be.
We were not able to pay the rent on our original space. It was very high. They had reduced it for a while, but then they wanted full rent again, and there was just no way. Now we’re with landlords that are very data-driven. They understand what’s going on and are very committed to the growth of Baltimore. We’re in a better neighborhood in Station North. I think it’s very promising.
Regardless, for all this period we were never interrupted making meals with Mera. Sometimes we had a space, sometimes we had a borrowed kitchen, or a rented kitchen. There was a lot of adjustment. But you’ve got to be daring and audacious and just go for it. That was what the team did brilliantly. It was hard sometimes because the space available in borrowed or rented kitchens was small. Especially in the summer, farmers would come in with so many vegetables that we didn’t know where to put them sometimes. But it worked.
I consider food to be an incredible privilege. It’s like a work of art that nature gives us and life gives us. It’s fantastic. And visually, I find it fascinating. I’m a photographer, so I photograph all of the food. I’ve worked with a lot of immigrants, even before being in the food industry. I worked with a lot of immigrants in California when I was in San Francisco. This has been the most profound experience, combining social sciences with my passion for food and the arts, all of it.
It’s not just employing people, but also taking the opportunity to really heighten their experience—not only their culinary experience, but also their experience in the food industry. We’re empowering them with a lot more voice than they’re used to having. That has been a very, very interesting thing in the kitchen. For example, I had a meeting with the staff yesterday. They were talking about the things that they find disrespectful, which is great. They also notice when other employees from Alma are like, “He’s a dishwasher, so that’s his job to take the things out.” Then they say, “But wait a minute. We are in solidarity, and we help the dishwasher take things out, and the dishwasher helps us.” It’s becoming a completely different dynamic.
Machismo has also disappeared. That’s been the most amazing thing. Machismo in the kitchen was so, so strong at the beginning of this experience in March 2020. Working together with the women, these guys realized that the women are incredible workers, and they stopped looking down on them. Not everything is easy, because some have become very cocky with their new knowledge, their new awareness. So now we’re working on the idea that it’s great that you have all that power. It’s great that you have all this information. Now you navigate your environment in a completely different way with a stronger presence. But you also have to develop empathy and understand that it’s your turn to start this dialog with people that see a more hierarchical system in the kitchen.
Because of the pandemic, we were able to focus on so many things when the restaurant was closed. The city, the employees, their culture, the transformation, sustainability, the relationships with farms. We were able to develop so many new windows in our life. That’s been a very fascinating and great and difficult thing.
Hospitality is not just about the guests that come through the door. Hospitality is our innate profession, and food is a privilege. To not share privilege is ridiculous. The history of the world has been transformed this past year. We have to move onto an innovative way to live, a different way to look at everything around us. I don’t think we’re going back to anything. We are just moving forward with imagination and creativity and solidarity, mainly because without solidarity, we’re screwed.
Baltimore is a small city. It has a population of 620,000. It’s an ideal city for a new model because it’s not that big. We’re trying to have a more holistic vision, so that it’s not just that we’re giving away food—how do we transform the distribution of food? How do we transform food policy into action? How do we get all that to work together as a united force?
Now we’re reaching out to the community leaders where our food is going to actually talk to these families and see what they think about the food they’re getting. Do they like it? Do they not? We’ve already done a round of that, and mostly it has been positive. But the kids don’t necessarily like to eat these vegetables that we’re presenting to them. They’d like pasta. And we do fried chicken once a month. But how do you transform these habits that lead to so many health problems like obesity and diabetes?
We’re establishing a stronger relationship with the farms around us. They may have an excess of certain vegetables. They grew too much, and so we get them at a lower price, or they donate them to us. So you’re having people eating organic produce that otherwise would go to waste because they didn’t sell them to regular purveyors, or to the privileged neighborhoods with supermarkets.
I’d like to have stability again, where tomorrow looks like today, or next week looks like this week. Now we don’t know from one day to the next. That’s all I’m looking for right now. so that we can breathe a little bit. We have improvised so much. We had done so much with our own hands, even rebuilding the new space—the floors, the lights, the bathrooms. We hired people for the kitchen, and we hired people for the very tall walls because we couldn’t do the painting. But the rest of it was hands-on. It’s been improv, creativity, adjustments, and spontaneous decisions all along. Now we just want to celebrate normalcy.
In the spring, once we do outdoor dining, it will be great. But even if we’re allowed to do outdoor dining before it’s warm, we’re not going to serve topical food outdoors in 32-degree weather. There is no way you will catch me doing that. You have to eat your food warm, and you have to be warm when you eat. Right now, we’re taking the time to visit all the farms as they start waking up for the spring. It’s going to be nice to make sure that all the connections have a person behind them, and that the person knows our staff, and we know them.
So we’re going to spend time creating live links instead of just through email or Zoom. And we’re going to create. It’s going to be so fun to be doing that as well.