Chefs Mariano Ramos and Benjamin Velasquez participated in a conference that reflected on three different ways in which cuisine affects conflict and also how it becomes a tool of foreign policy as a form of soft power.
Chef Mariano Ramos, Sonia Gutierrez Center, Carlos Rosario Charter School, Washington, DC: My parents came to the United States from Mexico. They worked as professionals-environmentalists who worked with the World Wildlife Fund and the World Bank managing projects all over the world. My turn to food was an identity question to myself: how I wanted to represent myself and what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I have a degree in computer engineering, but found that it was food that included all of who I am. I switched paths and studied at L’Academie de Cuisine with Roland Mesnier as well. Now I am teaching at Carlos Rosario international public school, helping immigrants to better their jobs and better their lives.
Chef Benjamin Velasquez, Sonia Gutierrez Center, Carlos Rosario Charter School, Washington, DC: I grew up in El Salvador. I always wanted to be a lawyer and I worked at a courthouse. In a conflict region, being a young person is a crime. Communist guerrillas were hunting young people, and the government was recruiting them, by force. My only choice was to flee. We had to migrate illegally. Going north to the United States of America was the best choice. Once here, I was without family, friends, roots, and people spoke another language. To me, the Americans were speaking everything upside down – it didn’t make sense.
Once I realized I was on his own and I had to survive – a fundamental immigrant experience — I took a job as a dishwasher. Promoted to assistant prep cook, I worked my way through the positions of line cook, shift supervisor, sous chef, chef, to trainer. That’s how I got into training people in the food service industry. However, due to limited English, I was training people that would eventually become my boss. I attended a culinary school for three years, where I realized that culinary arts and food services is the largest industry in the world. It’s the only industry that never shrinks. When people mention the oldest profession in the world, of course it’s cooking! Where there are people, there is food. I have worked for 29 years at the Carlos Rosario School in Washington DC, where I serve immigrants from all over the world. It doesn’t matter where you go in the city, there is an immigrant working in every hotel and restaurant. Because of this, resident and visitor to DC have the opportunity to experience the richness of different flavor profiles from all over the world.