Irena Stein, co-founder of Alma Cocina Latina restaurant, refers to arepas as the cultural ambassadors of Venezuela. At Alma, the corn flour sandwiches can be filled with everything from stewed black beans to grilled octopus or lentil fritters.
Alma is more than arepas, noted Stein, with a menu that touches on Venezuelan culinary roots with contemporary techniques, spanning from paella to gazpacho and ceviche.
“The tongue is the memory,” Stein said, so sponsoring chefs is crucial for her business to bring authentic Venezuelan cuisine to Baltimore. Since opening in 2015, Alma has sponsored four chefs from Venezuela on O-1 visas and is in the process of applying for a fifth. The merit-based program grants visas to individuals who posses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics to work in the U.S.
“That memory and the tongue is essential for them to understand exactly how the sauce is supposed to taste,” said Stein, who noted that Caribbean, Amazonian, Andean and Iberian flavors interplay when cooking Venezuelan food. “The flavors in the restaurant [have] to be an incredible, consistent experience, and you have to be familiar from Day One on the base of those ingredients so that you can mix them and create.”
Alma’s executive chef, David Zamudio, created new dishes when the restaurant moved from Canton to Station North and opened in February. The menu’s red snapper ceviche and pescado frito (fried fish) remind him especially of home and Margarita Island off the Caribbean coast of Venezuela, where he attended culinary school. His favorite plate is the Latin gyoza ― sweet plantain, bacon and cheese dumplings topped with a tamarind glaze.
“What makes it stand out as a great restaurant is not only our food and our flavor profile, there’s not also a lot of fine dining Latin restaurants in Baltimore,” Zamudio said. “Alma really makes you feel that you’re in Venezuela.”
Zamudio was granted his O-1 Visa last year and recently became a co-owner of Alma. Applying for the O-1 visa is a lengthy process and can take six months, as was the case with Alma’s former sous-chef, José Ignacio Useche, 27.
“It was one of my happiest moments at that time,” said Useche, who has been away from Venezuela for six years. “I felt really calm. Everything changed, more doors open for you and you have more opportunity.”
Alma was Useche’s first job as a manager and one of his responsibilities was developing new dishes. He is proud of bringing a plate that was inspired by his father’s hometown of San Cristobal in Venezuela. Today, Useche works at Seven Reasons, a pan-Latin restaurant in Washington D.C., with Enrique Limardo, another chef who previously was sponsored by Alma.
The O-1 visa application for chefs requires a portfolio, resume, letters of recommendation, a sponsor and approval from the American Culinary Federation. Zamudio, for example, has worked on a six-star rated cruise ship and apprenticed at fine dining restaurants across Mexico and Spain.
“I had like more than 30 letters; three were from Michelin star chefs,” Zamudio said. “You can’t apply for the O-1 if you don’t have the experience. The most difficult part is getting all the documentation ready, and then the anxiety that you get just waiting for an answer.”
About 15,000 new visas for the O-1 program are issued in the U.S. and a few hundred in Maryland each year, said Jeremy Schwartz, an associate professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business.
“It’s for individuals of national, international recognized prominence,” said Schwartz, noting that education is an industry that uses O-1 visas frequently and those sponsored can include movie stars, Nobel Prize winners and artists.
“You have to establish that you have some very specific skills that are highly regarded,” he said.
While the O-1 program is small, Schwartz said the impact of Alma hiring Venezuela’s top chefs reaps benefits beyond Baltimore.
“It’s more beneficial to society as a whole if we have programs that are geared toward international renowned talents. That’s to the benefit of the United States,” he said. “If the restaurant can attract talent that is at that level and start a new restaurant or improve an existing restaurant, that restaurant can hire more employees, and it benefits the economy as a whole.”
Zamudio remembers frantically checking the status of his application online every day. He was eager to get approved, to settle down and grow.
“I’ve been traveling for maybe more than eight years with two traveling bags,” the chef said. “And finally, I had the legal paperwork to stay in a place and in a happy working environment as well.”
Beyond serving food in the evenings, Alma is a center for dialogue and service. Upsurge Baltimore hosts meetings there on how to transform the city into a hub for tech and startups. Alma and Mera Kitchen Collective prep hundreds of meals each morning and deliver some Central American inspired dishes like beef chili adobo to families in need.
“The idea always has been that Alma is the soul of the community or one of the souls of the community,” Stein said. ”Station North is a very rich neighborhood and culture. People relate to our restaurant in a million ways, and so the dynamic and the liveliness that occurs in there is fantastic.”
Stein, who moved from Caracas 41 years ago to study anthropology at Stanford University on a Fulbright scholarship, said her education made her sensitive to immigration. It took her nine years to transition from her student visa to a green card.
Sponsoring Venezuelan chefs while her country is experiencing a mass exodus weighs heavy on her. With over 5 million Venezuelans now living abroad, the vast majority in countries within Latin America and the Caribbean, this has become one of the largest displacement crisis in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“[The O-1 visa] is not a common way to get out of there; you have to have accomplished a tremendous amount in order to use it,” Stein said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she would visit Venezuela three times a year to care for her mother.
“I met really wonderfully talented people, but the last few years, they’ve stayed in Venezuela,” she said. “They haven’t had much chance to grow their profession. I can’t sponsor them, and I wish I could, but I can’t.”
Since 2014, refugees and migrants have fled Venezuela to escape violence and insecurity as well as shortages of food, medicine and essential services.
“It’s a country where the minimum wage is $3.35 a month,” Stein said of Venezuela’s socioeconomic crisis and hyperinflation. “If a dozen eggs is the same price, what do you do with the rest of your life for a month?”
This spring, Alma started the application to sponsor a fifth chef to ramp up its dessert menu, which reflects different regions of Venezuela. Alma will know in late September whether the application is approved.
“The base of culture is food,” Stein said, “so there’s nothing more privileged than to actually present food to community.”
Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.