Story at a glance
- A new immigration-focused restaurant concept is opening this week in the nation’s capital, merging politics and global cuisine.
- At the helm of the operation is Peter Schechter, who was inspired by his mother to open Immigrant Food.
- The opening of Immigrant Food is part of a wave of new businesses whose ethos’ revolves around philanthropic causes, perhaps signaling the trend is here to stay.
What happens when you mix immigration reform advocacy with award-winning chefs and a building one block away from the White House? On Nov. 12, the answer to that question is Immigrant Food — an ambitious new fast casual restaurant concept by chef Enrique Limardo, Seven Reasons co-owner Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger, and former ThinkFoodGroup board member Peter Schechter.
Born in Rome, Schechter speaks six languages and is a shaking pot of immigrant mixes. In fact, until the age of six, he spoke only Italian at home with his parents who immigrated to the United States from Austria and Germany. He then moved to Latin America for almost a decade. He is now a recognized global policy expert, political adviser and business leader with 25 years of experience, including political campaigns in Latin America, Africa and Asia, private enterprise advisory, and the launching of nonprofits and new media startups.
Schechter was also a board member and one of the very first to invest in José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup. If that wasn’t enough, he also hosts and produces Altamar, a critically acclaimed global affairs podcast, and co-manages a Virginia goat farm.
At Immigrant Food, a menu of bowls will feature a blend of influences from some of DC’s largest immigrant populations, such as El Salvador and Ethiopia. The restaurant will also spotlight an engagement menu, with which diners can sign up to donate to or volunteer with five local immigrant-service organizations: Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, Ayuda, Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition, CARECEN and CASA.
We got the chance to pick Schechter’s brain on the story behind Immigrant Food, who and what is currently inspiring him, and his hopes for 2020.
What was your inspiration for starting Immigrant Food, and how does its mission relate to gastropolitics?
In 2018, I commemorated the 10th anniversary of my mother's death. My mother and father were both immigrants to the U.S., and this decade anniversary of my mom's passing coincided with a shocking surge of negative rhetoric against immigrants. That's when the idea for Immigrant Food began to form. When I started testing out the idea on friends and colleagues, I got rave reviews about how, in this increasingly divisive climate, businesses need to align their brand to certain important values. Nike did that with Colin Kaepernick, and Patagonia does it on the environment. Even a small business can do the same.
The idea of Immigrant Food would bridge two parallel lanes of my professional life: politics and advocacy on the one hand; food on the other. So, I'm proud that Immigrant Food will open on Tuesday, Nov. 12th — a cause-casual restaurant that fuses food and immigration advocacy. At Immigrant Food we celebrate the American story of immigration, partnering with five heroic immigrant service NGO's.
We will also publish a monthly online magazine called The Think Table, where we will take on a single immigration-related issue and go in depth. We use video, text and infographics to slice and dice the immigration discussion into manageable bites (can't help the culinary metaphors) — all in clear English and hard numbers. This monthly magazine lives online and is distributed via social media, which is how most of us consume our news and information.
The restaurant's address, of course helps make the point. Just a block from the White House, Immigrant Food's fresh, creative dishes reflect how we see America at its core: diverse, nourishing and welcoming.
This is our small contribution to the fight against a new intolerance in America.
Why do you think it's important for the leaders of the food world to speak up for immigrants?
Restaurants have always been a place where immigrants have gone to make a living, created community and showed off the cuisine of their heritage. In so many restaurants in America's metropolitan areas, immigrants are the cooks, servers, bussers and cleaners. Without them, there would be no restaurants. Immigrants are also the workers who plant, pick, package, transport and prepare the food restaurants serve. Immigrants feed America.
What accomplishment are you most proud of from 2019 so far?
Getting Immigrant Food from concept to reality was a yearlong sprint. During that time, I've been truly moved by the enthusiastic reception and full support of NGOs that work with and defend immigrants every day. They're in the trenches 24/7, and yet they expressed such appreciation that a business would be created to advocate on behalf of immigrants and would put these NGOs at the front and center of its business model.
What is the most important cause to you right now that you believe more people should be informed on?
So many causes merit attention and support, but it won't come as any surprise to you that I think that immigration is most fundamental to the fabric of our country. Sometimes it seems like I no longer recognize this America. Immigration is so fundamental to America's story — from George Washington welcoming Irishmen with open arms, to the Statue of Liberty, to President George Bush calling immigrants "the bridge to America's future" — and yet today that story is in doubt.
But we’re not only talking about the past! Immigrants make a huge difference today. Immigrants and their children have built many of the cutting-edge companies that transform our lives, employ thousands of U.S. workers and make Americans proud. Some 55 percent of America's billion-dollar startups have an immigrant founder. The current CEOs of Microsoft, Google, Tesla, Uber, and Oracle (to name a few) were all born overseas. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, America’s largest company, was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was raised by an immigrant father. Currently, immigrants make up around 25 percent of all U.S. science and technology workers and around 50 percent of the doctoral-level science workforce nationwide. Immigrants comprised 40 percent of U.S. science Nobel prizes since 2000.
Speaking of causes that are important to you, who do you think is the biggest Agent of Change in your field and why?
I have endless admiration for my friend, Jose Andres, who is the Godfather of fighting for immigrants from the food side. He has raised his voice everywhere: in his restaurants, in his WorldCentralKitchen, in books and interviews, even at the Oscars. Jose has taught us that it is possible to use food to deliver a powerful message.
What movie, book or song inspired you this year, and why?
It's not a new book; but after asking a lot of knowledgeable people about which book is the best history of the Civil War, I read James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”. Why a book on the Civil War? Because I worry that, like in 1860, we are living at a time of profound division and polarization. McPherson’s book dives deep into the psyche, culture and leaders of the time that America ended up at war with itself. And, like then, it seems that everything is in doubt today – including some of the very essence and deep values that propelled America to become a leader among nations.
I was touched by the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I wasn’t a huge Queen fan when I was a teenager (more like The Who and Carlos Santana), but this movie has made me a hardcore Queen lover. Besides the music and the tragedy of Freddy Mercury’s short life, the movie is about the son of Parsi immigrants from India (Freddy’s real name was Farrokh Bulsara) who moved to Great Britain with his family and made it big on talent, drive and heart. Though he faced difficulties and prejudices, his band, his friends and his family were endlessly supportive of this amazingly talented kid from an immigrant family.
What do you hope to do in the new year?
Open more Immigrant Foods and be a larger contributor to our partner NGOs. We hope that by this time next year, we'll have opened a second location and be working on a third. After three or four locations, we plan to open in other cities, and we look forward to getting to know the local organizations that work with immigrants in those geographies.
If you could wave your magic wand, what one thing would you change for 2020?
Divisiveness and polarization are eating America from the inside. We’re in a problematic place. I, for one, don’t believe that average Americans are as profoundly divided as politics, social media and the extremes want us to believe. Take immigration, supposedly one of the most divisive issues in America today. When you read your newsfeed, you might think the country is irreparably divided on immigration, and that this is our number one most contentious and divisive issue. But there are clear signs that American voters can agree on finding resolution on immigration. That starts with the fact that Americans still overwhelmingly believe immigration has benefited our country. Three out of four Americans – with majorities from both parties – said they think immigration is a “good thing” for the U.S., according to a 2019 Gallup poll.
And this is not the only issue in which common ground is possible. I’m convinced that America has still much to do, but it will need to find a new roadmap. It's my hope that in 2020 we can find a way out of the ugly rhetoric and destructive divisions.
Immigrant Food opens in Washington, DC on November 12. Follow them on Instagram.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.