The menu is only part of the equation.
For the leaders behind D.C.’s three-location eatery Immigrant Food, the mission is clear: Celebrate immigrant communities and advocate on their behalf. It’s also personal; the three cofounders, chef Enrique Limardo, Peter Schechter, and Téa Ivanovic, are all immigrants themselves.
In addition to serving an ever-evolving selection of globally inspired dishes, the restaurant offers its space, for free, to nongovernmental organizations (ngos) that serve immigrants. It also brings guests into the conversation by including an “engagement menu” alongside the regular F&B one and tackling big issues through expert interviews, infographics, and more.
After opening in late 2019, Immigrant Food has grown to three locations and switched to a full-service model. Limardo along with chef Mileyda “Mile” Montezuma continue to craft dishes that deftly marry disparate cuisines. For example, the Madam VP’s Heritage Bowl, created in honor of Kamala Harris, blends Indian and Jamaican flavors, while the dinnertime dim sum includes items like Cochinita Pibil Buns and Chicken Kataifi.
And as Ivanovic and Montezuma explain, this is only the beginning for Immigrant Food.
How did Immigrant Food begin?
Téa Ivanovic: The idea really started in 2018. The whole immigration debate became very heated and polarized. It’s important to mention that there have been polls conducted about immigration for 25 years, and every year it shows three out of four Americans believe that immigration is a good thing for this country—it actually went up during the Trump administration. It’s not something that controversial.
So the idea for us was to open a restaurant with a mission and really combine ESG—environmental, social, and governance—criteria into the business model from day one. When I met my cofounder, Peter, we talked about how to integrate this where it’s really a part of the business model, and it’s not just a corporate afterthought. A lot of companies do that, which is great, but we wanted to be a little more creative.
We’ve been called the first ‘cause casual’ restaurant, and we always say there are two beating hearts at Immigrant Food. One is the gastronomy and the food. And then the second is the advocacy and the mission.
How do you balance a restaurant operation and a social mission?
TI: We wanted to celebrate immigration and what immigrants have brought to this country, but also advocate and educate on their behalf. So we celebrate through our food; we’re inspired by all the different cuisines that immigrants have brought for centuries and the spices and flavors and ingredients. Chefs Enrique and Mile brainstorm how we can best do that, how we can fuse cuisines into something that’s new and different. It’s not just the recipes from your Italian grandmother or your Chinese uncle—it’s also new things that come out of that fusion.
We also want to advocate and educate on behalf of immigrants. We partnered with five immigrant-services NGOs that do incredible work. They’re local, and that way we can make the biggest contribution; we can donate our space for volunteer training, English classes, citizenship lessons—whatever they need, they can use our space at no cost.
Many people feel very strongly about the issue of immigration, but they’re busy with their own lives, so we try to make it easy. We have a food menu, a drink menu, and an engagement menu. Every Sunday, we put out five different ways that you can engage with the community, whether it’s a donation or signing a petition or joining a march.
Education is another cornerstone of Immigrant Food. How does that come into play?
TI: There is so much misinformation about immigration. I worked at think tanks, and Peter did, too. They put out great work, but it’s often geared toward experts, so we created what we call the ‘Think Table.’ We take one issue on immigration, whether it’s Dreamers, sanctuary cities, immigration courts, voting rights, you name it. We speak with experts. We’ve had members of Congress. We’ve had Tom Friedman of The New York Times talk about climate change and migration. We’ve had Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, talk about female entrepreneurship and immigration.
And then, we create four-minute videos, infographics, and short columns about the issue. That way, when you’re scrolling through Instagram, you get some real facts and learn something new about a topic you may have heard of, but you didn’t know a lot about.
Given so many global cuisines, how do you create a cohesive menu?
Mile Montezuma: How we start is we recognize all the spices or ingredients that different cuisines use. Then we mix them up like, ‘Oh, you can find cumin in Mexican cuisine but also in Asia.’ That is how we create the bowls that we have right now. So you can find different flavors that go hand in hand because they use similar spices in many cultures and things like that. But it has been a challenge because we’re trying to do different cuisines in just one dish. For me, I’m always reading about different cultures or the products that you can find in different places. And then I try to connect all the dots.
What’s the story behind the Planet Word Museum location?
TI: The founders of the museum actually came to Immigrant Food for brunch one day, and they said, ‘We’re looking for partners. We want a restaurant, but not just any restaurant—a restaurant that aligns with our values.’ It was the perfect partnership.
The space is very beautiful. We created this bar top that is inlaid with book covers and letters written by immigrants and the word ‘home’ in 28 languages. We wanted to create a special cocktail menu with seven different specialty cocktails from seven different continents. Each is named after a literary work from that continent. For example, the Asia cocktail is named Siddhartha. The North America cocktail is named Beloved. Enrique and Mile were also inspired to create a more upscale evening menu.
Do you plan to continue growing?
TI: Absolutely. That was always part of the business plan. The idea is to have five locations in D.C. So hopefully in the next one to two years, we’ll open two more in Washington, and then the goal is to expand beyond that.
Philadelphia is a city that’s been named, given the proximity, young population, college town, etc. Atlanta is somewhere that’s also been named and obviously Texas is something that we hear a lot. But we’d love to stay a little bit more local for our first expansion, and, hopefully, if everything goes right beyond that, we’ll see what’s possible.
Can we expect to see more ‘cause casual’ restaurants in the future?
TI: A question we get is: Are we alienating people because we’re so out there in terms of our values? The answer to that is actually no. More and more, we see people wanting to put their money where their values are and wanting to support and spend their money with companies that they believe in. You see it in retail and so many things, but you really haven’t seen it that much in food and beverage yet. We want to be part of that wave.