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Mera Kitchen Collective is a Culinary Esperanto

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“How do you say this in Spanish?” I ask Inocencio, or Chef Ino, as I hold up a zucchini toward his reticent face while we huddle over a cutting board in the restaurant’s small kitchen. 

“Calabacín,” he says, softening with an appreciative smile. He shows me how he wants it prepped for cooking before handing me the knife and entrusting me with the task, followed by cilantro, jalapenos, onion, tomato, bell pepper, avocado, and limes. He fetches and pitches vegetables to me for prep while the kitchen chugs along with its routine. I flatten myself against the prep fridge to make room for the bustling kitchen. 

I’m there to help the morning shift of Mera Kitchen cook 200 box lunches that go out three times a week to City of Refuge in Southwest Baltimore, a meal service that started as a mutual aid project during COVID. “The meals are only a bandaid for the food insecurity problems in Baltimore,” co-founder Emily Lerman shares with me.

Chef Ino cooks behind me on the griddle, Sara juliennes peppers at my side while the rest of the morning crew boxes the lunches in the dining room on the long communal table. Javier bounces into the kitchen after the lunches are finished, and the kitchen immediately overflows with his boundless energy. “El tiene chistes,” Sara says, warning me that Javi is the jokester of the crew. 

Ino passes me a plate of freshly grilled tortillas and scrambled eggs and invites me to scoop the guacamole we made together on the plate. Everyone adds a dollop of Ino’s delicious salsa verde. We stand and shovel the breakfast into our happy mouths, and the conversation among the crew turns to language; how hard it is to learn English and how expensive! 

 

At its inception, Mera Kitchen centered Syrian cuisine on its menu, but the spirit of the project was to make space for refugees and immigrants to create and share their cuisines and recipes.

Once back to work after our quick meal, Sara tells me she emigrated from Honduras to the US twenty years ago. She laments that her English is just okay. We talk together in Spanish. Her cheery face lightens up as she tells me about her three kids and shares that she’s lived in Chicago, Indiana, and now Baltimore. She cracks a stick of cinnamon with the back of her knife and crushes it before tossing it into a pot of sizzling peppers, onions, cardamom pods, and tomato paste. 

The aromatic base is for the Kebsa Bowl, an Arabic chicken and rice dish topped with slow-roasted chicken and jalapeno tomato sauce, and a refreshing cucumber salad. Sara stirs the fragrant pot dutifully. She chops and cooks for the various cuisines of Mera Kitchen, but her specialty is Honduran chicken tamales.

Ino tells me he’s been in the US for ten years after he left his home in southern Mexico. He’s thirty now. “Muy viejo,” he says with a jocular whistle. I laugh and assure him that thirty isn’t old. Ino learned to cook after he came to the US, but his influences from his home in Tlapa, Mexico, are sprinkled throughout the menu, tinga chicken, tacos, and salsa verde. 

Émilienne comes in for her shift at 9:30 a.m. and greets me warmly, even though I’m a stranger in her kitchen. Originally from Burkina Faso in West Africa, she is fluent in French and is learning English.  She spots the empty coffee pot and grunts before making a fresh pot. She looks at my bin of vegetables filled with zucchini and says, “calabacín.” We share an intelligible smile. Without a single shared language among the workers, the universality of food paired with various regional influences and language crossover has created an exclusive Mera Kitchen dialect. That dialect is ever-expanding.

Mera Kitchen has seen an evolution in its food since its first popup in 2017, back when Aishah Alfadhalah, Emily Lerman, Meg Murray, Brittany DeNovellis, and Chef Iman Alshehab started serving meals in their homes. Early dishes were created by Chef Iman, who worked in the kitchen at the Four Seasons in Damascus before her life in Syria became untenable. She immigrated to the US in 2016 as a refugee from the ongoing civil war in her country that started in 2011 and continues today. At its inception, Mera Kitchen centered Syrian cuisine on its menu, but the spirit of the project was to make space for refugees and immigrants to create and share their cuisines and recipes. 

Émilienne joined Mera Kitchen in 2018, shortly after immigrating to the US from Burkina Faso after a coup in 2016 and ongoing violence there made her life unstable. She and her family immigrated to Baltimore after winning a Diversity Visa Lottery. Her husband worked in the hospitality industry at a hotel before it was occupied by rebels in a violent conflict. Émilienne says he was lucky to survive but that the events left him traumatized. She worked at a newspaper and operated her own food kiosk, named “Les Anglese,” after her firstborn, where she served breakfast and lunch. 

Émilienne created the Burkinabé Plantain and Avocado Rice Bowl. She proudly shows me a text exchange with Emily that shows 3,100 bowls sold over several months. She’s also brought her version of the West African staple chicken yassa to the menu as Yassa Chicken Wings. We go downstairs to the walk-in, and she shows me her fragrant yassa still marinating in its mustard bath. Émilienne shares that in Burkina Faso, it’s common to use only onions, garlic, and mustard. However, because Maryland has so many sweet and delicious bell peppers, she has created her version of yassa, something more regional to Baltimore. 

 

The worker-owned business model was a no-brainer for founding members Emily and Aishah, who understand that true democracy in the workplace cannot be achieved without access to ownership.

Émilienne becomes eligible for ownership within Mera Kitchen’s worker cooperative structure in March. I ask if she is excited to pursue ownership. She pauses to search for the words in English. “It makes you more confident,” she answers. She wants to feel more connected to the business and expresses an interest in learning more about the front-of-house and finances, and has the desire to learn more chef skills in a formal setting.

She admits her life in the US is hard, and her English is still not great. She wakes up daily at 5 a.m. to ensure her three children get to school. She is there to pick them up after school and watch them in the evenings while her husband works at the Amazon factory. She is open to ownership but wants to understand the advantages and risks.

Mera Kitchen has four owners and two workers on track to become owners. The worker-owned business model was a no-brainer for founding members Emily and Aishah, who understand that true democracy in the workplace cannot be achieved without access to ownership.

Over the past few years, the worker-owned model’s advantages have become more apparent and widespread. Beyond workplace democracy, the model fosters entrepreneurial education among workers and offers a built-in model for multiple generations of operators. 

Ownership of Mera Kitchen is sometimes complicated by the immigration status of its workers, making the legal side more cumbersome for them than other cooperatives. Still, they are dedicated to equity despite the challenges. I wrap up my morning shift before heading to my day job, on my way out, Chef Ino gives me a lunch to take and walks me to the door, his obsidian eyes sparkle in the light of a cloudless sky as we say goodbye.

When I returned later that evening to meet the dinner crew, Eric greets me at the bar. I can hear a smile beam through his southern salutation even though his face is covered with a mask. He’s a retired teacher and works as a server in the evenings. I compliment his silver and turquoise ring and he shares the story of when his husband gave it to him in the Outer Banks. He and his husband are entering retirement and he says he could coast happily through retirement as a worker-owner at Mera Kitchen. 

 

Rogelio trims a flank steak for his Mexican Steak Salad. Beside him, a cook meticulously peels the skins from charred and marinated eggplant for Iman’s famous mutabal, a smoked and garlicky eggplant dip.

Eric takes me to the kitchen and introduces me to the crew. I roll up my sleeves to start helping but Rogelio quickly smiles and shakes his head indicating it’s okay to just stand and chat. Chef Iman sits tucked closely to the wall at a small prep table where she’s stuffing and folding hundreds of samosas. She radiates with a big smile and returns silently to her work. 

I lean back against the three-compartment sink and ask Rogelio, “Who is the chef tonight?” He smiles and says everyone’s the chef but Iman is the real chef. She turns and offers another smile, this one with a hint of humble acceptance. Iman has been integral to Mera Kitchen, but I don’t speak Arabic and, without a translator there, we mostly communicate with big smiles.

Rogelio trims a flank steak for his Mexican Steak Salad. Beside him, a cook meticulously peels the skins from charred and marinated eggplant for Iman’s famous mutabal, a smoked and garlicky eggplant dip. I ask Rogelio if he learned to cook in Mexico, and he lets out a deep chortle. “It’s kind of funny,” he says. He tells me that in Mexico, where he’s from, men don’t cook. “Men work in the fields, and women work in the kitchens.” 

When he immigrated to the US, the only work he could find was in the kitchen. He learned everything he knows about cooking from chefs in the US over the past decade. “The kitchen is my baby,” Rogelio says, putting his knife down and crossing his arms over his chest to demonstrate the sentiment. 

Rogelio has been in the US for fifteen years. His brother, Javi, the jokester, works at Mera Kitchen in the morning. He says he’s happy to work with his brother, but he hasn’t seen his parents, now in their seventies, for years. “Once you leave you can’t really go back,” he explains in Spanish. “It’s sad.”  Visiting is not an option. 

He says returning to Mexico would be easy, but getting back into the US is the hard part and coyotes cost between $10,000-$15,000. He says for immigrants it’s just endless hours of work to send money home. He watched American cooks come into the kitchen and leave for school while he worked. “Life is work. Work is life,” he says. He wishes his English was better and he’s interested in lots of things outside of the kitchen. Rogelio is one of four worker-owners at Mera Kitchen. 

 

I head out of the kitchen and back into the dining room to work with Alexus, the front-of-house manager. A native New Yorker, she’s composed and attentive as she greets me. Alexus has been at Mera Kitchen for one year and is happy to be there. She informs me that she’s got a table of six coming in thirty minutes, and I understand that as our timeline for pleasantries and excursions. I ask her to show me the mezzanine. 

We walk up the short staircase to the landing with a communal table and shelves filled with cookbooks and trinkets from around the world. She pulls a brightly colored basket off the shelf and shows it to me, “Aishah brought these back from Kuwait,” she shares warmly before putting it back with precision. 

We ascend another short staircase to the mezzanine dining area, where a few tables overlook the restaurant. String lights twinkle throughout the dining room and create a flutter of sparkles beyond the balcony railing. A teal and orange loveseat rests regally against a terracotta-colored wall and centers the seating area affectionately called the Asal Lounge. 

Alexus shows me downstairs, where we pass the spice rack, filled abundantly with the fragrant spices of the world. Sumac and za’atar from the Palestinian-owned company Z&Z, cardamom pods, cumin, and cinnamon fill the shelves outside of the walk-in fridge where Émilienne’s yassa is still marinating. 

 

When we get back to the dining room, Alexus quickly transitions from my tour guide back to the manager, she organizes mise en place and ensures that all guests are ready to be received with set tables. 

Alexus paces the floor, and Eric attends to guests. I spend time with R.G. at the bar. He’s been a bartender in Baltimore for years, with an impressive resume that includes Alma Cocina. His cocktail menu is emblematic of the culture of Mera Kitchen. The Old-Fashioned Date uses a housemade date syrup instead of traditional simple syrup. He proudly mixes up a Mera Mezcalita made with the women-owned Xila Mezcal liquor and Illegal Mezcal and pushes it toward me to enjoy. I take a sip and relax into the evening. Emily sidles up beside me, and we talk naturally about business and her upcoming wedding. I finish the cocktail as the dining room swells with energy from the dinner guests. 

We head to the kitchen, so I can thank the dinner crew for taking the time to chat with me. Rogelio insists I wait for dinner as he packs me his Mexican Steak Salad. Emily and Chef Iman laugh in the corner. Iman shows us pictures of what dresses she’s considering wearing for Emily’s upcoming wedding. I talk to Balthazar between the kitchen racks about his trumpet skills while Rogelio lays perfectly sliced medium-rare flank steak on top of his gorgeous salad. I smile as he hands me the to-go container on the pass. Eric pushes into the kitchen to take dishes to his tables. I thank everyone deeply and they thank me with the same intensity.  

When I get to my car, I sit in the quiet darkness and peer adoringly out of the windshield toward the flickering lights that outline the windows of Mera Kitchen. I can’t wait to get home and eat the dinner Rogelio packed, my third Mera Kitchen meal for the day. I’m eager to enjoy the richness of the steak against the crispy romaine and creamy avocado cilantro dressing. My stomach reminds me I’m hungry even though, in so many ways, I am already completely full. 

 

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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