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'Immigrant Food' Restaurant, Trump's New Neighbor


Just before Thanksgiving, I broke away from my desk at NPR headquarters and headed to a new restaurant here in Washington that's been getting some attention lately, mainly for its name and location.

We are one block from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. It's right over there. The restaurant behind me is called Immigrant Food. It's a place that celebrates the thousands of immigrants who have helped make D.C. the city it is, with flavors from Ethiopia, El Salvador, China, Iran, India. That's just to name a few. So we wanted to find out more about this restaurant that refers to itself as cause casual, so we've come to chat with two of the co-owners. Let's go in.

PETER SCHECHTER: We wanted to create a restaurant that wore pride of immigration and immigrants right on its sleeve, right on its name - you know, a celebration of the food and the gastronomies that immigrants brought to America throughout the centuries.

ENRIQUE LIMARDO: It's like combining 20 restaurants in just one place.

GONYEA: That's award-winning chef Enrique Limardo. He's created the menu at Immigrant Food. We heard first from another co-owner, Peter Schechter. He's a longtime political adviser and global policy expert. There's a third co-owner as well, Ezequiel Vazquez-Ger. All three owners come from immigrant backgrounds. They opened the restaurant in part because of the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

SCHECHTER: We now live in a country where at least a portion of the country feels that sort of we've got to be closed to immigrants. And so we thought that it would be a wonderful thing to create a restaurant, in part because people unite around food. Our hashtag is #unitedatthetable.

GONYEA: The name is so simple it is almost generic. It is generic - Immigrant Food.

LIMARDO: Yeah. It's Immigrant Food. It's nothing more to say. That is exactly what we are doing here. So when Peter brought the idea, I just fall in love because as an immigrant from Venezuela, I just left my country because of the situations, political and economics. And I came to America because it's the land of opportunities and pursuing the - you know, the American dream and all of that. So I just fall in love with the idea.

GONYEA: But we're sitting here - as we said, the White House is only a block away. Immigration has become one of those issues that people argue about, and it seems the volume is so high. Do you try to stay clear of the politics? Are you embracing it? Are you taking another path?

SCHECHTER: We want very much that this restaurant be all about values. We're trying to espouse a fundamental value because we believe that America's story is the story of immigrants. And so we want to push those values forward because we believe that immigrants are fundamental not only to the past, to the law of what America is, but to the future of what America will be.

Americans continue to be the lifeblood, you know, of energy, the innovation. If you look at the Nobel science prizes that America has received, 40% of them have gone to people who were not born in America and immigrated to America. If you look at the CEOs of some of the companies that we love, whether it's Tesla or Amazon, these are people who are either immigrants or whose parents were immigrants.

GONYEA: The restaurant is described as cause casual, in part because it also acts as an educational space. The owners donate meeting space within the restaurant to nonprofits dedicated to immigrant services.

SCHECHTER: The space we're sitting in right now, the upstairs of the restaurant, is something that we will donate to the organizations for English classes or citizenship classes or board of director meetings - whatever they need.

GONYEA: Customers are also given the option to donate to these groups. At the end of the day, though, this is a restaurant with an award-winning chef running the kitchen. And he makes sure the food is also part of the conversation.

So in describing this place to people, I've been saying you can get Ethiopian, and you can get Salvadoran, you can get Iranian food. But I'm not correct in saying that. You can get those things, but they may not be in the form that you - yeah.

LIMARDO: One other thing that I always said - that we don't want people just to attach the idea that it's very traditional from Ethiopia, for example. Or this is what's prepared by the nonna (ph), my nonna in Italy. No. We want that people just remind those flavors and reminds the idea from Italy or from Greece or from China or from Vietnam. And they are going to expect something very powerful because it's the mixture of those cultures is very strong. And it's a celebration in the palate. You know, it's explosion in the palate.

GONYEA: And Limardo says this fusion of flavors works.

LIMARDO: It's like chemistry. I just - with this challenge and this concept, I just realize in this point of my career that you can fusion almost everything if you use the right amount, and it's going to be delicious.

GONYEA: Chef Enrique Limardo and Peter Schechter of Immigrant Food, a new restaurant just steps from the White House here in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.