Softening the masa, the dough made from ground corn, was the first step.
Maria del Carmen Guardado Martinez reached into the metal bowl, twisting dough into chunks and passing them to the cook next to her. It was less than 36 hours till the District restaurant Espita Mezcaleria would open its doors to dinner guests, and Guardado, 22, was the guest star of the kitchen.
She was using her mother’s recipe to make 200 Salvadoran tamales, and she was determined to get it right.
“It’s not like the Mexican one,” Guardado said in Spanish through a translator. “It’s not overpowering or bland, and it’s not too spicy. It’s soft. Just the right balance.”
Guardado, who came to the United States from El Salvador in 2017, is the youngest of five chefs participating in an inaugural dinner series organized by the group Tables Without Borders. For one week, aspiring chefs from refugee communities across the Washington area are taking over the kitchens of popular District restaurants, offering diners a chance to sample food from their home countries.
On Monday, a South Sudanese chef served up the traditional vegetable dish basico at the award-winning restaurant, A Rake’s Progress. And on Tuesday, Guardado unwrapped her tamales con pollo, placed them on a warm bed of black beans and sent them through Espita’s stylish digs. A Syrian chef was expected to cook for a sold-out crowd at the rooftop of the Apollo on Wednesday night. Still to come are meals featuring food from Afghanistan and the Xinjiang-Uighur region in China.
Tables Without Borders has three broad goals, organizers said: raise funds for refugees and organizations that support them; boost the careers of participating chefs; and humanize refugees at a time when the U.S. government has slashed refugee admissions, tried to restrict the flow of migrants across the southern border and threatened mass deportations of undocumented residents.
“We want people to feel this other side of refugees, something aside from what they see in the news,” said Sara Abdel-Rahim, 23, one of the organization’s co-founders. “We all need to gather around a table and we all need to eat, so let’s make this the place we actually learn about refugees.”
Guardado, who normally works flipping omelets at the Westin hotel in Ballston, Va., came to the United States through the Central American Minors refugee program, just months before it was terminated by the State Department. Her mother — who was her first cooking instructor — planned to join her, but has not been able to enter the country amid President Trump’s crackdown.
The young chef now has a green card. She lives in Arlington with her father, Santiago Guardado, who arrived in the United States 18 years ago and had not seen his youngest daughter for more than a decade when she arrived in 2017. Two of her brothers also live nearby.
When Guardado cooks Salvadoran food, however, she thinks of her mother. They speak by phone every two days, often for hours at a time.
Tables Without Borders paid Guardado and the other chefs $35 an hour for participating in the project. Up to 15 percent of the restaurant proceeds are being donated to the nonprofit Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, which provides refugee services out of Silver Spring.
“We love raising awareness, but at the core, it’s about helping people in their actual lives,” said Sam Sgroi, 25, the other co-founder of the organization. “There’s a really good opportunity here for career advancement, and at least, at the end of the night, these chefs receive a good paycheck.”
Restaurants that participated early in the week reported overflow turnout — mostly area residents who heard about the initiative via social media and are eager to push back against the White House’s border rhetoric.
On Tuesday, the majority of diners at Espita’s industrial-chic dining room ordered the dishes marked “Chef Maria,” which in addition to the tamales included refried beans and fried Yucca doughnuts paired with honey ice cream for dessert. Some guests came up to Guardado to shake her hand or ask for pictures.
Seated in a corner booth, dressed in jeans, a stiff red shirt and a black baseball cap, was her father, Santiago Guardado. The 63-year-old, who has been working to replace windows in Charlottesville, rode a Greyhound bus for three hours to get into the District in time.
“Nothing could have stopped me from coming,” he said.
He dug into plates of his daughter’s cooking, cleaning up bowls of tangy salsa with tortillas that were thicker than usual — just how Salvadorans like it.
When asked what was his favorite dish, the deep lines in Guardado’s face spread into a wide grin. “That’s easy,” he said. “The tamale.”
“It tastes exactly like her mother does it.”