Chef Enrique Limardo is commonly considered the pioneer of modern Venezuelan cuisine in the United States. He is only the second Venezuelan chef in the United States to receive a Michelin star, and his restaurant, seven reasons, had been named one of the most important restaurants of the decade by Esquire. (Limardo has a second restaurant in Washington, DC, Imperfectas well.)
Although his culinary talents are well known, many may not know that Limardo came to the United States to escape violence and corruption in his home country of Venezuela. The chef may be firmly on his feet now in the United States, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots or the hardships he faced, which fueled his passion for mentoring other chefs in Venezuela as well as to work with a range of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across Immigrant food, DC’s first “gastro-defense” restaurant. In this edition of voice in foodLimardo explains why it’s important to him to help not just immigrant chefs, but all immigrants, and how he uses food as a vehicle for change.
When I came to the United States in 2014, I left everything behind. In Venezuela, I had my own restaurants and my whole family was there, including my wife and two children. But political corruption has not only created great financial hardship, it has made it difficult to survive – period. My neighbor was killed right outside my house. After that, I knew I had to find a way for my family and me to leave Venezuela.
I came to the United States on a tourist visa, then later got an exceptional talent visa, which allowed me to stay longer. The first six months were difficult for me. My father, my mother, my wife and my children were always in my head. I was completely out of my comfort zone and everything was a struggle. But people helped me, and I was able to start working, finally bringing my wife and children after a year.
I didn’t get to where I am today on my own, which is why mentoring other chefs is so important to me. Now I am able to help others who are exactly where I was seven years ago. I was living in Baltimore and working as an executive chef at Alma Cocina Latina when I had the idea for an internship program for Venezuelan chefs. The program allowed Venezuelans to come to the United States on a tourist visa and work in restaurants. The intern candidates were students attending good high schools or universities, or who were already working in a restaurant there. Once they got here I started mentoring them and they became a really good team to work with.
One person who was part of the internship program is Chief Mile Montezuma. After her internship, she followed me to Washington, DC, where I hired her as a chef Immigrant food ― DC’s first casual restaurant that celebrates immigrant stories through gastro-defense. Basically, this means the restaurant uses food as a way to uplift immigrants through partnerships with NGOs. The dishes on the menu are inspired from around the world: dishes like Indian samoas, Latin wontons and a Ukrainian salad. Right next to the food menu is an advocacy menu with fundraising opportunities.
The chefs who come to the United States through the internship program are like family to me. I hear their struggles, and they know I understand because I’ve been there too. I understand the violence and corruption they left behind. I understand that they are worried about their mom and dad. I understand that they send as much of their paycheck as they can to help out. I understand the slow, impatient wait for a green card.
About 6 million people have left Venezuela, making it one of the biggest displacement crises in the world. Nearly 100,000 have been registered with US immigration agencies since October 2021. Many are bussed from the border to DC, where I live. They get off the bus with nothing, no place to go and often without knowing English. Every week, myself and the other restaurant workers from Seven Reasons and Imperfecto drop off food for them at a few different locations, including churches and Union Station. It’s a way not only to feed them, but also to offer some hope.
Food is not just about food or taste. It’s those things, but it’s also a reflection of the culture and can be used to trigger change. When you cook or share a meal with someone, amazing things can happen. You might just change someone’s whole world.