When Meherwan Irani got wind of a nationwide strike protesting President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, the local restaurateur was all in. “We heard about the day of protest that José Andrés had spearheaded in Washington, and we said that if any of our employees wanted to protest, then obviously that is cool,” says Irani, who co-owns three Asheville eateries and two in the Atlanta area.
On Feb. 16, students across the country stayed home from school, factories ran at low capacity, and restaurants scrambled to adjust their staffing or closed outright. The goal of the Day Without Immigrants was simple: to show how many industries would be crippled without the immigrant labor they rely on.
The action came in response to Trump’s executive order banning travel by passport holders from seven predominantly Muslim countries and the president’s broader anti-immigrant agenda. Andrés — a celebrity chef whose restaurant empire has brought Spanish cuisine to diverse cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami and Washington — was among the strike’s chief supporters.
Employees at all five of Irani’s restaurants, including Chai Pani, MG Road and Buxton Hall in Asheville, said, “We want to work, but how about we do something with the money so that it helps someone more than just us not showing up to work?” the restaurateur says. Accordingly, the restaurant group announced that it would donate all of that day’s profits to the American Civil Liberties Union to stand in solidarity with the protesters.
“This isn’t about politics: This is about people being able to hang onto their basic human dignity,” says Irani, who has a green card himself and whose staff, particularly in the Atlanta area, is largely Hispanic. “Due process,” he explains, “is quite often what the poorest among us cannot afford. I look at this as a humanitarian crisis: People are being separated from their families. There are even members of my staff that are legitimate green card holders that are genuinely concerned and worried about being targeted or accidentally rounded up.”
Supporting basic rights
Other local restaurateurs are also finding ways to make a statement. On Sunday, March 12, James Beard Award-nominated chef Katie Button will host an already sold-out dinner at Nightbell with Brittanny Anderson of Metzger Bar & Butchery in Richmond, Va. Some of the proceeds from the meal will also benefit the ACLU, and in an ongoing effort, customers at both restaurants will now be given envelopes inviting them to donate to either the ACLU, Human Rights Watch or the International Rescue Committee.
Button opened both Nightbell and the nationally celebrated Cúrate with her husband, Felix Meana, an immigrant from Spain who first came to the States to assist Andrés when he opened Minibar in Washington.
“We think diversity is the best part of our country: Ideas from people with different backgrounds inspire innovation,” says Button. She experienced that firsthand while working at the acclaimed El Bulli in Spain, which welcomed chefs from around the world to learn, become a part of a community and help create a legacy.
“Felix is a green card holder,” notes Button, clearly flustered by the subject matter as she stumbles over her words. “We allow people of different backgrounds into our country because they make a difference when given the opportunity to contribute, and I think it has led to really wonderful things. I know it has for us. I think we need to be really careful about changing that system.”
Button took an even stronger stance in a statement sent to local media in late February: “I have heard stories upon stories of green card holders, DACA recipients and others with legal work permits either being told that they cannot enter the USA or being arrested and forced out. Refugee programs have halted, and those who have been waiting for resettlement in the United States are forced to make alternate plans. It makes me wonder when and why we decided that it is better to make blanket decisions affecting innocent people and violating their liberties, all in the name of protecting ourselves. This type of xenophobic attitude … certainly isn’t why I’ve been proud to call myself an American, and why I felt confident raising our daughter and growing my business in Asheville.”
The growing fear, she says, has prompted her husband to think seriously about applying for U.S. citizenship “just to secure him more rights here.”
Irani, meanwhile, sounds a similar note. “I’m absolutely concerned,” he says, adding, “My last name is Irani, and I’m brown! It’s terrible. … You should be inspired to get citizenship because you are proud of where you live, not out of fear that if you’re not a citizen you’ll get kicked out.”
Standing up for women
Local restaurants aren’t focusing their efforts solely on immigration, however. Table and The Imperial Life are planning a monthly dinner series, each aimed at a different concern raised by the president’s proposed actions. A six-course meal benefiting Planned Parenthood is slated for Thursday, March 16. The Trump administration has threatened to defund the group, which provides reproductive health care to millions of women every year.
The dinner, titled “The Women Who Taught Us to Cook,” will feature Table’s chef de cuisine, Elizabeth Schultenover, as well as Ashley Capps and Sarah Cousler of Buxton Hall, Alyssa Mikus from Cucina 24 and Suzy Phillips of Gypsy Queen Cuisine. The menu will highlight the work of pioneering women chefs like Julia Child, Alice Waters and Edna Lewis, featuring a mix of their recipes and dishes inspired by their work. “We’re leaving it to each chef to pick whatever woman she feels connected to,” says Kelly Vormelker, Table’s general manager. “We all feel very connected to Planned Parenthood, and we all believe in giving women access to affordable health care.”
Future Table dinners will benefit immigrants in America and the NAACP. Asked if there’s been any fallout from the restaurant’s foray into politics, she says, “I don’t know if our audience is just very accepting or what, but we haven’t gotten any pushback yet. If that comes our way, we will deal with it. We’re pretty well-versed as to why we stand behind women, their health and their freedom, so I think that would be an easy stance to defend.”
These dinners will also enable chefs, whose profession is notoriously time-consuming, to keep their knives to the cutting board while still feeling that they’re making a difference. For her part, Schultenover is looking to her grandmother for inspiration.
“When I was in ninth grade, I took my first cooking class, and my grandmother made me a book of all of the recipes we grew up with. She would always turn on Julia Child for me to watch as a kid, instead of ‘Sesame Street.’ So I feel like I should be making something from her cookbook.” Schultenover hasn’t decided on a recipe yet, but says her grandmother “taught me how to crack an egg, so I know it’s going to be an egg-based dish.”