D.C. might be the land of fast casual copycats, but that doesn’t mean everything has to stay the same. Immigrant Food, which opened last November, has been changing up the scene. Their “cause casual” model injects the bowls that we love so much with a diverse set of flavors, their monthly online magazine is jam packed with information on immigration and their NGO partnerships help customers give back in a very real way.
We caught up with Kitchen Manager Mile Montezuma and Communications Director Tea Ivanovic to chat about their love of food, their drive to help and their favorite things to eat for lunch.
How long have you been cooking… both seriously and non-seriously?
Mile Montezuma: Non-seriously, since I was a child. My father used to cook a lot in my house and I always liked to cook with him. Then I got into culinary school in 2014 and then I got an internship in Baltimore, at Alma. I started there and they offered me a job. I was there for three years and then I moved to the city and started to work at Seven Reasons and now I’m here.
When did you realize you wanted to get into food?
Montezuma: I always wanted to go to culinary school. My father was like, “You have to study a real career.” So in college I was doing business administration. Then I went to culinary school.
Tea Ivanovic: My background is in PR and communications, and I was a reporter, so I still contribute. I went to school to study economics and international relations and I was at a financial PR firm before this. I, by accident, met Peter [Schechter], one of the co-founders, at an alumni event. He told me about this idea and I fell in love with it, both on a professional level, because it was very exciting to work at a startup on a concept that’s so different, but also personally. I’m an immigrant myself. I call myself an immigrant squared because I was born in Belgium, my family is from the former Yugoslavia, from Serbia, and then I moved to the US for college. It spoke to me on a personal level and I decided to dive in.
You’ve both been here since the beginning. How were the early stages? What was that environment like?
Ivanovic: Mile has been working with Chef Enrique [Limardo] for a many years. I started in June of this year, and that’s really when the concept started forming. We went through the positioning and how was wanted to position the brand and what exactly we wanted to do, specifically. Peter came up with this idea a year ago, but it was implementing that. The main part of it was the food, so a lot of it was discussions with Mile and with Enrique about creating the menu
Montezuma: Every week we started trying all the bowls. We changed things and it was a long process.
It’s a diverse amount of references to food history and culture.
Ivanovic: Enrique always says that it’s 20 restaurants in one. If you look at it, every bowl is inspired by immigrants from a variety of countries. For examples, the Columbia Road is an ode to two of the largest migrations in Washington D.C. We wanted to specifically make that about the city we’re in. Hopefully, one day we can expand and do the same thing for other cities.
How long did it take to create the menu?
Montezuma: It was a long time. More than six months, I think? Almost? It was a lot because he was making trials of all of the food, but then people would say, “You should change this, or change the dressing or mix this.” Everyone was excited about [Columbia Road] because it’s Salvadoran and Ethiopian cultures.
In the beginning, we were afraid [of mixing]. For example, if you mix the Viet Vibes with the Columbia Road, in the beginning, we were like, “Oh my god, I don’t think that’s going to work.” But we eat here almost every day and when we mix things from different bowls, it’s amazing. Everything can go with everything.
What’s a normal day like for both of you?
Ivanovic: For me, I like to wake up pretty early. I’ll do some work from home and then run into the office. My role is director of communications, but because it’s a startup, we all do a lot more than our specific role. It’s working with the NGO’s, because we have the engagement menu, internal communications, external communications, social media and all that. I try to come around for lunch. When I’m here, I love coming around here and talking to people, but I can’t just get a lot of work done.
Montezuma: I get here at 8:30 a.m. every day. We prep everything for it to be ready at 11 a.m. and then I’m checking to make sure everything is perfect and checking all of the orders. In the afternoon, I do all of the office work.
When it comes to the menu, are there any ingredients that are especially hard to get?
Montezuma: Yes! For example, in the Columbia Road there are loroco flowers and none of our providers have them. So I have to go to a latin supermarket and buy it every time. For the mylks, it’s hard to find pistachio milk. It’s hard to find it.
Ivanovic: The mylks in general are so different than anything you’ve kind of seen. They’re all plant based and vegan with no sugar added. And each of them is inspired by a different region of the world.
I know Immigrant Food is still brand new, but do you have any plans to change the menu?
Montezuma: It’ll be seasonal, maybe we’ll change things in the summer.
Ivanovic: Enrique and Mile are really good at coming up with new ideas. Just yesterday we were trying some different things for events, because we also do catering. Just that was super creative and different.
To break away from the food, can you tell me a little bit about the online magazine you produce?
Ivanovic: Both Peter and I worked at think tanks before. They’re known for targeting a very specific audience of experts, people who are in the government or people who are academics, not the general public. Most of us don’t read a 4,000 word wonky paper before we go to bed. Still, there are lots of interesting discussions there. In terms of immigration, there is so much going on that we don’t hear about, us normal people. So we wanted to create a space where people could learn about immigration, but in a fun way. Not in an overwhelming way. This is sort of dipping your toes into this very complex issue. It’s like a monthly magazine, but digital, we call it a micro-digital think tank because it’s called Think Table. Every month we focus on a different aspect, we slice and dice the immigration issue, as we like to call it. In November, for our inaugural issue, we focused on the Dreamers because on November 12 there was a huge hearing at the Supreme Court. We talk with experts and we have five NGO partners, but we also have five advisory board members. For example, we have two people from Emerson Collective which is Laurene Jobs’ foundation. One of them, Marshall Fitz, helped us with the first issue.
The NGO part, the engagement, is really the core part of what we do. Immigrant Food is all about celebrating the contributions of immigrants to this country. America’s story is the story of immigrants. Unless you’re Native American, we all come from somewhere. We also wanted to help immigrants today so we partnered with five NGO’s, we wanted them to be local, that provide services to immigrants. Basically, we’re helping them in two ways. One, is with the engagement menu, it’s a digital menu next to the food menu. You can just get a bowl and eat and that’s fine, but you can also donate a dollar to one NGO, or all five, and we’ll split it up evenly. You can sign up to volunteer right here in the restaurant. If they have a petition going on or a march, you can sign up and get involved. A lot of people wake up and they’re like,”Oh my god I don’t recognize America anymore,” but they don’t know what to do about it. These are specific ways you can help. The second way we help them is that they can use our upstairs. They let us know whenever they need space for workshops or client meetings or internal meetings. These people are bursting at the seams, they have so much work and they don’t have space.
Were the NGO’s and the magazine component always part of the idea? Or did that come later?
Ivanovic: It’s kind of like going a step beyond corporate social responsibility. Or just seeing it in a different way. A lot of business donate a part of their profits to a cause they believe in and that’s wonderful, but we wanted to do more than that. We wanted to integrate the cause into the business. Immigrant Food wouldn’t be Immigrant Food if it wasn’t for the cause. It’s not just a corporate afterthought.
What’s your favorite thing on the menu?
Ivanovic: Mine are the two vegetarian bowls, even though I’m not a vegetarian. I love the Bay of Bengal and the Beirut and Beyond. The hummus these guys make is amazing.
Montezuma: Those are my favorite too! People here love the Viet Vibes, it’s the most popular. The dressing makes it spicy, but not too much and you can have noodles. People love the combination.
Ivanovic: People also love the Columbia Road.
Montezuma: Yeah, those two are the most popular. The people are crazy about them.
I know you’ve been working with Chef Enrique for a long time, Mile. What’s your collaboration process with him?
Montezuma: We are super close. He’s always like, “What do you think? What do you think can be better?” We always talk about everything. When we started working, he had half of the menu, so I helped him with the other half.
Ivanovic: What’s really exciting is the enoki / red bean meat substitution. A lot of people come in and they’re vegan, and we have the two vegetarian bowls, which I love, but then any of the bowls can be made vegan by substituting. These guys made it up.
Montezuma: Shredded beef, ropa vieja, is the inspiration. It’s something like that. The texture of the mushrooms is like that, then there’s blended red beans and cilantro and sofrito. It’s super good. [Chef Enrique] didn’t want to have a vegan option, because all of the bowls can be vegan, but every restaurant has a vegan topping.
Ivanovic: Of course, they didn’t just want to use tofu or something.
Montezuma: No, that’s too simple.
Ivanovic: No, they had to make something up.
Montezuma: We started to talk about this, we made it, we tried it and we were like, “This is amazing.”
Ivanovic: It looks like pulled pork.
Montezuma: The texture, the flavor, it’s just like meat.
Do you prefer working in a fine dining restaurant, like Seven Reasons, or fast casual?
Montezuma: No. When you like what you do it doesn’t matter. Here, you have the diversity of the menu. We were trying the things for catering yesterday, so you can explore with another menu. You can do anything. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s fine dining.