A guide to culinary culture in Washington, DC

global gastronomy

If Obama helped to inspire the artisanal movement in DC, then his successor helped, indirectly, to influence the dining scene. In the past five years, an emphasis on immigrant food has become something of a phenomenon in the District, perhaps as a defiant response to Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. There are now a handful of organizations and restaurants that are helping to promote immigrant chefs in the city. One is Open Kitchen DC, whose founder, Mary Johns, organizes events where immigrant chefs give cooking demos and teach attendees about the country and culture of their birth.

“DC is the most international city in North America,” says Mary, as we graze on lamb-stuffed samsa pastries at Dolan Uyghur Restaurant. “And immigrants gravitate here,” she adds, saying that a number of Afghans who fled the August 2021 Taliban takeover had landed at a nearby US Air Force base and were settling in the area.

Immigrant Food — a restaurant that recently opened in Planet Word (the world’s first voice-activated museum), at the Franklin School — takes this a step further by serving a fusion of cuisines based on immigration patterns to DC. Peter Schechter, co-founder of the new restaurant, says that the inspiration for the project was born out of his concern for the US and its immigrant population during the Trump administration. “Immigrants pick our food,” says Peter, who previously worked as an international political strategist. “They drive the trucks to transport our food. They cook our food. And they serve our food. Immigrants are totally connected to the food on your plate. Rather than write more opinion pieces in newspapers, I decided to combine the two things I love: activism and restaurants.” He calls it “gastro-advocacy”.

Immigrant Food’s Venezuelan-born executive chef, Enrique Limardo, spent weeks studying immigration to the DC area and its associated foods. “I knew it was possible to fuse various cuisines once I studied Ethiopian and Salvadorian cookery — the food of the two biggest immigrant groups in DC,” he tells me. “I found a lot of commonalities between them.” The result is an odd but delicious marriage of ingredients from various groups, such as Caribbean spiced chicken doused with a Vietnamese pho-inspired sauce.

But immigrant cuisine goes far beyond just Open Kitchen and Immigrant Food. For instance, Spanish chef José Andrés, through his World Central Kitchen nonprofit organization, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for helping communities in need around the world, as well as supporting immigrants. “There are no borders, no limits,” says Peter Schechter. “There’s nothing more beautiful than people communing around the table eating food from different parts of the planet.”

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