During his appearance at the Oscars, activist chef and Nobel Peace Prize nominee José Andrés spoke of “the understanding and compassion that we all owe to the invisible people in our lives – immigrants and women – who move humanity forward.” In recognition of International Women’s Day, held every year on March 8, this week’s column profiles female immigrant chefs I visited with during a recent trip to New York City.
Chef Maia Acquavina is the chef and owner of Oda House, an East Village restaurant featuring the cuisine of the Republic of Georgia. The Republic of Georgia sits at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe on the route of the ancient Silk Road. Situated between Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia, the Republic of Georgia has rich culinary traditions; its ancient grape and wine culture dates back 8,000 years.
Chef Acquavina was born and raised in Georgia, where spending time in her grandmother’s kitchen nurtured a passion for cooking. Years later, after becoming a successful plastic surgeon, she recalls that she would come home after performing eight hours of surgery and cook. “It was relaxing – a great feeling.”
After the breakup of her marriage, Maia decided to leave her homeland in 2007 to start a new life in New York City, where language difficulties limited her to a job as a physician’s assistant. While in New York, her passion for cooking was rekindled. She took culinary courses and decided to trade her scalpel for a chef’s knife. She became the executive chef at the Russian restaurant Mari Vanna before opening her own restaurant, Oda House. Oda House is a comfy, low-key spot serving home-style Georgian cuisine and Eurasian wines.
Maia says, “Words cannot fully express how grateful I am for the opportunities that have been presented to me. A lot of people want to change their lives, and this country gives you freedom to do that.” Her life motto is: “If you want something with all your heart, the entire universe mobilizes around you to make your wishes come true.”
Chef Mako Okano is the chef and owner of Shabu Shabu Macoron in New York’s Lower East Side, which bills itself as the world’s first “shabu shabu omakase.” Shabu shabu is a Japanese dining tradition where small pieces of protein and vegetables are briefly cooked in a pot of broth that is simmering over a hot plate in the center of the dining table (shabu-shabu means “swish-swish”). Omakase is a Japanese phrase that means “I’ll leave it up to you.” The chef decides what dishes you will be served.
Shabu Shabu Macoron is a tiny eight-seat restaurant where diners sit at an L-shaped bar that wraps around a tiny, spotless kitchen. Mako heads an all-female staff of three. Her $128 prix fixe menu consists a succession of four beautifully presented little appetizers followed by five courses of shabu shabu, ending with homemade soba noodles and dessert.
Chef Mako cooked for two years at a soba restaurant across the street before opening Shabu Shabu Macoron on a shoestring budget. She says she was eager to operate a restaurant for her “first step in NY.” After a glowing review by New York Times food critic Pete Wells, her eight seats are always full and reservations are booked out far into the future.
My story took a slightly different turn when I boarded the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island. I was headed to Enoteca Maria, the last stop on my homage to immigrant women chefs. Passing the Statue of Liberty, I recalled the inscription on her pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Unlike the previous two restaurants in this profile, Enoteca Maria is owned by a man, but instead of being staffed by professional chefs, all the food is cooked by nonnas – grandmothers from around the world.
Joe Scaravella had no previous restaurant experience when he decided to open Enoteca Maria. Mourning the loss of his mother and sister, Scaravella especially missed sitting down with family for home-cooked meals. He placed an ad in an Italian language newspaper for “Italian housewives to cook regional dishes” and opened a restaurant staffed with Italian grandmothers. A few years later, in 2015, he invited a Pakistani nonna to cook for a night. This prompted him to broaden his concept to “Nonnas of the World.”
Now Enoteca Maria has a rotating staff of nine nonnas, hailing from such places as Italy, Peru, Greece, Sri Lanka, Siberia, Bangladesh and Armenia. Two nonnas work in the kitchen at any given time, one as head chef and the other as a sous chef. This means an Italian nonna and a South American nonna could be working side by side, learning each other’s recipes. “You can’t really put too many of them together,” he playfully warns. “Because you’re gonna see, sparks are gonna fly.”
In addition to serving lunch and dinner Thursdays through Sundays, Enoteca Maria hosts free cooking classes taught by its international staff of nonnas. “They really bring the food culture to the next generation. Every time one of these grandmothers is in the kitchen you have a thousand years of culture coming out of their fingertips.”
The theme of 2019 International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter, celebrating women’s achievements while calling for a more gender-balanced world. Recent revelations of abuse and sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, spurned by the #MeToo movement, reveal a culture badly in need of change. More than a third of all claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from restaurant workers. The talented immigrant women I interviewed are truly “moving culture forward.”
Peter Glatz and Bertha Bus will soon be heading out west to Oklahoma City to begin a new life as a chef at Nonesuch, Bon Appetit magazine’s “Best New Restaurant.”