Irena Stein

Irena Stein is a photographer, restaurateur, immigrant, sustainability advocate, and humanitarian whose spirit is deeply rooted in humanizing society. Irena came to America from Venezuela on a Fulbright Scholarship to Stanford University where she graduated with a Master’s in Cultural Anthropology. Since then she has merged her passion for art, food, community, and environmentalism into a seamless blend in a city that craved it--Baltimore, Maryland. These passions quickly came together when she officially entered the culinary world in 2002 and opened two cafés at Johns Hopkins University. The first one at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Café Azafrán, and the other in the Humanities building, Alkimia. Both locations have been pioneers in introducing sustainability and zero waste at Hopkins. Azafrán has provided healthy and diverse cuisine to the brilliant minds of astronomers, astrophysicists, and spacecraft engineers for 15 years. Her cafés not only received recognition for their sustainability practices and delicious fresh food but also as the first establishment to bring the traditional Venezuelan arepa to Baltimore. The overwhelming support in the city led her to pursue her dream of bringing a taste of Venezuela and her childhood outside of Hopkins and into the greater Baltimore community. That is how Alma Cocina Latina was born, making Irena one of the first to bring contemporary Venezuelan cuisine to the United States in 2015. The restaurant became wildly popular, gaining attention from Baltimore Magazine (Best Chef, Best Restaurant, Best Ambiance, and Top 50 Best 2020-2023), Baltimore Sun (Top 10 Restaurant 2015, Top 10 Dishes in 2016, Top 10 Restaurants 2017, and 2020 Marylander of the Year), a rare 3.5 stars by famed Washington Post food critic, Tom Sietsema, and praised in national publications like Food & Wine, Forbes, Conde Nast Traveler, as well as received a 2024 James Beard nomination for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. For over 9 years Alma has led the Baltimore food scene with innovative and transformative ideas not only with their cuisine, but in shaping how we view food in our society. Behind all of Irena’s concepts is her belief that food is the key to breaking social barriers, bridging communities, and ultimately the foundation of world peace. In 2020, Irena made that passion for social change into a reality with Alkimiah, where she helped create a community meals program in partnership with Mera Kitchen Collective that provided healthy, high-quality, and sustainable meals to communities for free during COVID difficult times. Alkimiah fed over 150,000 people, and has been recognized nationally by Bon Appétit, The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, United Nations Environmental Board, and more. In 2023 she launched the first ever comprehensive arepa cookbook in the world, AREPA: Classic and Contemporary Recipes of Venezuela's Daily Bread that has expanded her reach to share Venezuelan culture around the world. Beyond her writing and continuous commitment to Alma, she has been in the process of opening Candela, an Arepa Bar, next to Alma Cocina Latina that is set to open in summer 2024. Whether she is mentoring young people aspiring to get into the restaurant industry, actively helping Venezuelan Pemón Indigenous communities lead programs of ecotourism, or implementing a rainforest to table program working directly with indigenous communities in the Amazon to support their micro economies, Irena dedication to being a liaison between her home country of Venezuela, and the US is the driving force behind all of her endeavors.

Founder of Alma Cocina Latina, Photographer, Designer and Producer