Mera Kitchen, Alma Cocina Latina offer new pandemic dining

Most of the news about dining out this year has been bleak.  More cheerful has been the arrival in December of Alma Cocina Latina, relocating from Canton to the old Chesapeake (and more recently Pen and Quill) restaurant site on North Charles Street.  With it came two other interventions that offer free meals and fair wage kitchen work for recent immigrants. 

Because they are close by Bolton Hill, Alma Cocina offers safely spaced-out indoor dining and carryout meals that are worth a try. It is open evenings and features dishes influenced by Latin America, especially the birth country of owner, Irene Stein; she is Venezuelan.

More unconventional is the Mera Kitchen Collective, a worker-run catering and carryout business sharing their kitchen.  It’s designed to enable local women from around the world to put their cooking experience into creating menus that showcase dishes from Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.

A third venture, led jointly by Stein and a Mera Kitchen founder, Emily Lerman, is called Alkimiah (Arabic, roughly, for alchemy), a non-profit morning kitchen operation at the restaurant preparing free, well-balanced meals for those in need and sustaining meaningful employment.  Supported initially by DC celebrity chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, plus city funds, Alkimiah has produced and helped distribute more than 100,000 free meals so far.   

Today the project is backed by foundations and other philanthropy.  Defying the poverty-wage norm of many restaurants, Alkimiah offers staff from Mera and Alma extra work at a guaranteed $16 an hour.  The New York Times suggested their model might be replicated by restauranteurs around the country. 

Lerman, 37, came to Baltimore from Detroit a decade ago to get a public health degree at Johns Hopkins, then worked for Doctors Without Borders in Africa and Asia.  That provided her insight into the need to empower women to work in a manner and on a schedule that supports their lives as parents and heads of families.  The rest of the Mera Kitchen team consists of cofounders Aishah Alfadhalah of Kuwait and Iman Alshehab from Syria and staff members Courtney Turner of Atlanta and Emilienne Zongo, from Burkina Faso.  Lerman also works on the staff of a non-profit organization that promotes co-ops and worker ownership.

Mera Kitchen began in 2018 with the women hosting booths at the Baltimore Farmer’s Market and the Saturday market in Waverly, plus pop-up events and dinners for 25 to 100+.  “We were finding our way, working out of several cafes and the Lord Baltimore Hotel kitchen,” said Lerman. “Most recently we used Neopol Savory Smokery’s facility.  We were set for our biggest event ever, a dinner for 900 last March, the very weekend when everything shut down.”

By then Mera Kitchen had attracted talented cooks, some of whom had worked in restaurants and run small food operations in their home countries.  They raised funds on GoFundMe and got catering jobs by word of mouth.  

“Our primary goal here is to create a lasting business, a for-profit carryout and catering enterprise run by these women,” said Lerman.  “A lot of people want to volunteer but we are really about economic opportunity and ownership.”  The organization created an employee assistance program that provides health or other benefits as the workers need it.  To get on the weekly menu list for Mera Kitchen, click here.

-Bill Hamilton