Betty Gabriela Rodriguez
This is not another article about Alma Cocina Latina, the outstanding woman-owned restaurant located in Baltimore. Although, it was the perfect reason to find out more about its founder -- Irena Stein. Her journey and legacy is both moving and inspiring. While listening carefully to what she had to say, I saw myself astonished to find, for the first time, a woman that reflected the same passion and urgency that I feel: life's about building community to make a positive change in society.
Irena Stein’s Legacy
Irena is a pioneer. In the 2000s, she opened the first Latin and Venezuelan fusion cuisine restaurant in the DMV. She is now disrupting the current status quo of the culinary industry by transitioning to social gastronomy (uses the power of food as a tool for social change). In a country craving for racial justice, gender equality, and structural social reforms this is not a modest contribution, but an irreverent way to challenge a broken system. While most of the restaurants in the area focused exclusively on offering to-go menus, prioritizing the purchase of products from local suppliers, and reorganizing their workforce to ensure productive operations, Irena decided to pursue social gastronomy to fight food apartheid and unhealthy nutrition in Baltimore.
Her steps have always been off the beaten path. Her dad was Polish, her mom was Venezuelan. She has spent her life between Venezuela, Europe, and the US. She moved to Europe for the first time at the age of 6, then, spent 13 years in the South American country and has been living in Baltimore for the past 22 years. On one hand, the strong influence of her mother made Venezuela grab her by the heart. Still, she credits the influence of her father and her years in Europe to her critical thinking. A francophone education in social work, a self-taught photographer, a nature lover, and a Buddhist practitioner-- she has found that her passions have coexisted in every step of her personal and professional journey.
Businesses may fail without a meaning, and in the case of Alma there is meaning everywhere. Alma (‘soul’ in English) is what you find in every corner of the restaurant: the calming environment provided by the plants, the porcelain dinnerware, the elements of the Venezuelan culture that are sprinkled throughout -- almost unintended, like the presence of a mother, who is silently guiding her daughter. If you have not heard about the meaning of the French word consommacteur this is a great opportunity to do so. It is a combination of the words ‘consumer’ and ‘actor’ -understood as someone who actually takes action - who uses her purchasing power to put her ideals into practice. I explain this, because it helps perfectly capture why Irena is a role model for the modern social womenpreneur.
Irena’s kitchen broke the hierarchical structure of the traditional culinary model. She partnered with Mera kitchen collective, a Baltimore-based collective of chefs from around the world seeking to empower and celebrate cultural diversity. Its non-profit entity, the MK Foundation, also supports primarily refugee women from Africa and the Middle East. On top of that, she has a long-standing relationship with the environment, ranging from the healing connection with plants, to the zero-waste and sustainability concept of her business approach. Her signature toast is ‘to peace and food for everyone’ as it reflects her work philosophy: using food to build community, share culture and create a peaceful environment where we can all thrive.
Struck by the social and economic impact of the global pandemic on vulnerable communities in Baltimore, breaking into the social gastronomy space has become part of her well-known legacy as a businesswoman and founder of her main projects: Alma, Café Azafrán, Alkimia, Cielo Verde, her lens and her garden.
Irena Stein’s Journey
Self-identified as a Polish-Caribbean Baltimore resident, Irena has not always been the woman we know today. All those labels and multiple cultural references did not make a lot of sense in her early years and particularly, during her different migration experiences.
She developed a deep love of nature thanks to her mom. A smile appeared on her face when talking about her 97-year-old mother who used to carefully keep guard of the trees in Caracas. She would call the Municipality immediately if someone threatened to take it down, and then stand in front of the tree until the police came. Irena’s mother has always taken care of the family’s nutrition, cooking seasonal vegetables and healthy food.
Her hard-working nature was cultivated by her father. She remembered that he explicitly agreed to always cover the cost of his children’s education, but anything they wanted beyond an education, would have to be bought with their hard earned money. At 24, she had saved enough to buy her own camera and travel to India to visit a friend. She found the language to express her emotions through her camera lens in the landscapes of India, Nepal, and Thailand.
Back in 1968, during the effervescent era of sexual liberation, drugs, and rock & roll, she moved from conservative Venezuela to progressive Europe. She acknowledges that she did not have the confidence and self-awareness that we observe today. Excited about the liberties and confused by the culture shock, she was not ready to explore all the freedoms available to her. As any other teenager, she wanted to belong but was too morally conflicted to act on it. Step-by-step, she connected with her inner self through Buddhism.
Irena also felt uneasy about the rising political ideologies of the moment. During the school breaks, her classmates smoked and protested in their school,the Lycée Français, in favor of Lenin and Stalin’s ideals. Coming from a very recent and vulnerable democracy in Venezuela, she was aware of the lack of political and civil liberties in the Soviet Union. It always shocked her that those young students praised a system that did not match their lifestyle and economic status. She found that she was more a philosophical person than a political one.
Thank you so much Irena for sharing the beauty and wisdom of this sneak peak of your life!
Irena’s top 3 recommendations for social gastronomy & entrepreneurship:
Launch a GoFundMe campaign to involve your community in the transition from culinary to social gastronomy or reach out to the third sector to get financial assistance.
Be guided or mentored by an expert to incorporate the philosophy and principles of social gastronomy: a democratic kitchen, sustainability, fair pay, equal opportunities to women and men for career development and the social impact on communities.
Take actions every single day. It is the best way to empower yourself and develop the courage you need to transform your fears into the fire that kindles your light.
Today Amazona Foundation honors you and wishes you a very happy birthday!