Artist/chef Irena Stein is set to open Alma, her Latin American tapas restaurant serving comfy street food and artisanal drinks at the Can Company, in April. Stein, 61, the striking visionary behind all-natural Café Azafrán at the Space Telescope Science Institute—one of Baltimore’s best kept secrets—and Alkimia, a second locally sourced lunch spot on the Hopkins Homewood campus, was born in Venezuela. The daughter of a Polish father and Venezuelan mother, Stein grew up in Caracas and Brussels, both of which influence her diverse recipes.
You morphed from social worker to jewelry designer to chef—how did that evolution occur? I found myself in a very fragile situation economically after Sept. 11, and everyone encouraged me to open a place where people could enjoy my food. Eventually, friends started spreading the word that I was a caterer (I was not; I just adored cooking), and a number of clients started asking me to cater their parties. I said yes.
What sparked your passion for organic, locally grown food? I grew up in countries where buying local is normal because people cook seasonally and go to markets to buy fresh food. My mother cooked like that, so I never knew anything else. Never packaged, never canned. But it was not just our family. Most people followed a lifestyle that included pretty much a Mediterranean type diet—very balanced.
How did you choose the name Alma? Alma is a very beautiful name that represents the soul and the heart. This is a place where I can share everything I believe creates comfort and delight for the community. The menu will highlight Venezuelan and Latin American cuisine. It will include the famous and beloved arepas (crispy corn patties), empanadas, ceviches, stews and fish and meat dishes of the vast surrounding region. We have chosen to cook those popular foods with a contemporary approach.
Tell me about your duo chef team at Alma. I have the enormous good fortune to have two Venezuelan chefs with exceptional, award-winning careers: Enrique Limardo and Federico Tischler. Both have trained in the culinary schools in Spain, have worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants and have had rich careers in our home country as well. Together we will introduce a whole repertoire of flavors entirely new to Baltimore.
At Azafrán and Alkimia, you serve lots of scholars. Who do you envision as your clientele at Alma? Canton is a very diverse population in age and professions. We hope to seduce everyone with our full-flavor small plates and our bar.
Do you see a connection between your art and your cooking? Yes! Food is the biggest privilege in life, and the ingredients are beautiful. When you share it with your community, it is a pretty fantastic experience.