Alicia Amende, a business and marketing graduate from the UK, was 22 years old when she arrived in Buenos Aires for the first time in late 2012. She had no idea what to expect. “I would like to make a difference and get involved in different Not-For-Profits,” she wrote in her diary at the time.
That was four years ago. Now, Alicia comes across as a full-blown local, complete with aspirated rioplatensisms, hand gestures and street attitude. More impressive, however, is her role in founding Delicias de Alicia, an exciting and quickly-growing social enterprise that provides free nutrition and cooking workshops for disadvantaged kids in La Matanza and, as of this year, Lanús. The workshops are funded by Alicia’s ‘closed door’ vegetarian restaurant, which offers healthy, unprocessed, seasonal food to a clientele often more accustomed to facturas and meat. So that also makes her a head-chef, project manager and entrepreneur.
It’s a quite remarkable story, particularly if you consider she arrived with only rudimentary Spanish – picked up in dribs and drabs as she and her boyfriend backpacked through Latin America – and 40 pounds in her bank account.
The idea for Delicias de Alicia came about in Gregorio de Laferrère, a city in the sprawling municipality of La Matanza, shortly after Alicia arrived in Buenos Aires. Gregorio de Laferrère is full of informal settlements, many of which are dangerously close to the heavily polluted Matanza River, and which frequently lack plumbing, electricity, clean water, and other government services. Some refer to the area as being “red zones”, because they are not recognised by the municipal government.
Alicia was there working with the NGO Education, Technology and Food (ETF) that was throwing a party for the children living in one of these marginalized communities. Halfway through the day — a coca-cola and potato chips affair — she had a sort of epiphany. All the literature she was reading suggested that malnourishment and obesity negatively affected childhood development: a poorly fed child lacks energy and concentration, and this affects not only their health, but their social interactions, their sense of curiosity, and their ability to plan or take up new information. And then there were the negative environmental and social consequences of consuming energy-intensive, mass-produced food. In this way, bad food and bad eating habits were implicated in perpetuating the cycle of poverty. So why were they providing the kids with all this sugary, nutritionally-scant food if they wanted to make a wholly positive impact in these communities? Clearly, something was missing.
Alicia voiced her concerns and ETF were receptive, encouraging her to think of a solution. So she went along one Saturday with some fresh ingredients, all of her energy and a plan. She would throw a healthy eating and cooking workshop for the kids.
These were kids who lived on a diet of bread, mate and sugary drinks. Some of them told her they didn’t even know what a “vegetable” was, as in the case of 8 year old Lucía. But Alicia opted for a fun, commonsensical, hands-on approach, turning healthy eating into a game. “Just introducing color into their diet was fundamental,” she says, giving an example of her straightforward methodology. “I mean, nature has given us a clue about what to eat. Why not pay attention?” She also shared the pleasure in preparing, cheap, healthy dishes – lentil burgers, oatmeal cookies, fruit salads – and of breaking bread around the same table.
It was a success. But now a new question emerged. How to fund and run more workshops?
This is where Delicias de Alicia, Alicia’s ‘closed door’ vegetarian restaurant comes into the picture. 100% of the profits from raised in the restaurant go to funding the workshops. The restaurant, run by Alicia and her small team (a photographer, an assistant, and a growing group of people excited by the project) has been operating since 2013 in an old, stately house in San Telmo, a space that is donated by ETF.
It’s a convivial, nourishing affair. Sixteen people attend every other week. They are greeted with a champagne cocktail and crostini, before clustering around the same table for a three-course vegetarian meal. Between each course, Alicia describes the food and the project.
Food is central to Alicia’s life. Growing up, her mother always cooked, generally from scratch. “Our idea of fast food was mom putting some crumbed fish fillets into the oven and cooking them,” she says laughing. But the key figure in her culinary development is her French grandmother, who survived Vichy France before moving to England – taking with her a unique attitude to food.
Alicia describes a pate that her grandmother bought to one of her birthdays. It was a venison pate, but not just any venison: her grandmother had found a dead deer on the side of the road, hauled it into her trunk, taken it home, skinned and then cooked it. “Roadkill pate,” says Alicia laughing, scandalized and delighted by her grandmother’s skills, strength and creativity.
It’s this attitude to food – of taking humble ingredients and turning them into something special; of avoiding waste; of dedicating time to the ancient act of caring for oneself and one’s family; and of ‘living to eat and not eating to live’ – that so informs the philosophy behind the workshops and the vegetarian restaurant.
Alicia doesn’t really consider herself a chef, but rather someone who loves food, not only for the pleasure it brings, but also for the fundamental role it plays in human health, development and happiness. Alicia describes the process for menu-planning for the restaurant as a blend of constraint and creativity. She goes to her local fruit and veggie shop and has a chat with the greengrocer about what’s fresh, tasty, in season, or discounted writes all this information down; and then, based on this list, brainstorms a menu. This week it’s tomato and watermelon gazpacho with fresh cucumbers and yellow tomatoes, followed by an organic sweet potato stuffed with feta cheese and lentils, and finished up with organic almond and peach cake with homemade mango ice-cream.
While the main aim of the project is to fund the nutrition and cooking workshops, it also attempts to transform everyday argentine eating habits. When I visited for the final dinner of 2016, I sat next to a young Argentine woman who talked rapturously about what it meant to have discovered a restaurant that offered healthy, diverse, colourful vegetarian food. “I feel cheated by the Argentine diet. Milanesas are not the only thing on earth,” she said, savouring every mouthful of an eggplant, feta cheese and lentil moussaka.
Delicias De Alicia has been steadily growing since that first workshop back in early 2013. Alicia and her team will now be working with Médicos del Mundo to roll-out workshops in disadvantaged communities in Lanús. She is also formalizing a six-week curriculum so that one day others can teach the course. Her plan is to gain more funding and recognition so that eventually the program can be run in schools.
Meanwhile, on the restaurant front, she is working with partners and musicians to host slightly more opulent Delicias De Alicia nights at different houses throughout the city. In late March, she’ll be hosting a dinner in Belgrano, which will offer attendees live music and an extra food course. She is also keen to work with local producers to get sustainable, artisanal products on her menu.
Finally, that famous quote from Orson Welles makes sense: “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” If Delicias De Alicia is anything to go by, the latter is the answer to the former.