D.C. chef Christian Irabién has experienced his fair share of stressful kitchens, a common environment for many in the restaurant industry — especially on-the-rise cooks. Though it’s easy and obvious to promise yourself your restaurant will be different, it’s much more difficult to put plans and practices in place to ensure stressful cycles are broken.
The food industry was a constant when Mexican-born Irabién first moved to the U.S., settling in El Paso, Texas, at age 11. With family members manning restaurants, he experienced the teamwork required in the kitchen. Irabién eventually found his way into several D.C. kitchens in his late 20s — a relatively late start to professional culinary life — before eventually setting out to establish his own footprint as a restaurateur.
“Being a third-generation immigrant and having a mom who worked three jobs while struggling with the language barrier and the culture clash — and not knowing how to advocate for yourself — it can be really difficult to reach beyond what you have in front of you,” Irabién says. “So many people are telling you, ‘You can’t.’”
Now, Irabién is one of the District’s most notable chefs actively making a difference while proving “you can,” whether offering advancement opportunities in his eatery or providing education to people moving up in their careers.
Collaborating for Change
This kind of inclusive and educational training is integral to Irabién’s Hospitality Humans initiative, a mission born out of necessity and somewhat by accident.
The initiative is more than a few learning modules. Irabién offers workshops on leadership, communication and other forms of professional development out of his restaurant Muchas Gracias!, which itself started when he saw an opportunity to help restaurant workers struggling at the onset of Covid-19.
“The restaurant industry is pretty tight-knit,” Irabién says. “Everyone does a great job rooting for and supporting each other when they can. We’ve been able to grow. We were never supposed to be there, and now there’s a sign up and we’re there.”
Irabién started Muchas Gracias! as a pop-up to support a few American immigrant workers during the pandemic. From there the restaurant expanded, allowing them to add tables, resources and more staffers to the operation. Despite its success on the city’s “Best Of” lists, Muchas Gracias! has continued to represent more than authentic Mexican dishes with quick volume.
“The original restaurant was focused on Tex-Mex. We were even calling it ‘borderless cuisine.’ As Muchas started evolving and growing, some of the people who were helping [and worked in other restaurants] came and helped us here because they were out of work.”
He also supports immigrant rights through his contemporary, coastal Mexican pop-up Amparo Fondita. Initially slated to open as a brick-and-mortar restaurant in early 2020, Irabién scaled back as a pop-up, hosting locations at both District Space in Brookland and Union Market’s Cotton & Reed.
Most recently, he teamed up with Qui Qui chef Ismael Mendez for a one-night, five-course pop-up collaboration in Shaw. Irabién — now up for the RAMMY Award for Rising Culinary Star of the Year— is currently in fundraising mode and plans to announce a location for Amparo soon.
His culinary ventures have also served as blank canvases to accomplish his goal of fostering a more inclusive, educational environment in the restaurant industry. Irabién says the idea for Hospitality Humans first popped into his mind about six years ago. With the pandemic shuttering neighboring restaurants in 2020, he wanted to do all he could for the folks he employed.
“We were working with a lot of Latin American immigrants — every restaurant does,” he says. “You hear a lot, ‘We can’t find staff, we can’t find experience.’ My question is always: ‘Why aren’t you training the people in your restaurant to move forward?’ It’s this weird cycle.”
Nourishing Professional Growth
Irabién believes the industry has to allow people to grow into undertaking the work rate restaurant owners and managers expect. One disconnect is caused when restaurant management is unable to effectively communicate to its largely Latin American workforce.
“Workers can’t advocate for themselves,” Irabién says. “There’s zero connection beyond the work being done. A lot of times in these roles, people there the longest may get promoted. But just because I know the recipes and how to organize the walk-in, doesn’t mean I know how to lead or train people, and how to manage a team. For me, the question was ‘How do we fix that?’”
Because of how Muchas Gracias! worked with immigrant workers and people out of work, the goal was to train the staff to the point they could run the business. From there, Irabién says he sought to work with each of the people individually in order to better understand their goals.
Despite best efforts, the chef says some people are simply accustomed to the traditional restaurant environment, a hostile place where people live by the old adage that pressure cooks diamonds.
“You can’t save everyone, but we try,” Irabién says. “At the beginning, I had more than one person leave the restaurant because they felt I wasn’t managing properly because I wasn’t screaming at people.”
So far, Irabién has trained the people who run both the front and back ends of Muchas Gracias!. And though it’s still mostly small in scope, aside from a few workshops he’s done for other area restaurants, Irabién says the goal for Hospitality Humans is to create a collective of professionals and leaders in the DMV who are interested in embodying the hospitality aspect of the business — for customer and employees alike.
“We’re in the business of caring for people,” Irabién says. “[I’ve talked to] other chefs about the difference between growing up with the privilege to go to culinary school [versus] someone trying to support two families, one here and the other across the border. It’s a whole different ball game.”
For information about Muchas Gracias!, Hospitality Humans and more, visit muchasgraciasdc.com and follow the restaurant on Instagram @muchasgraciasdc. Follow Amparo Fondita on Instagram @amparofondita and Irabién at @christianirabien.
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