Food & Drink

An Artist's Eye for Food

Restaurateur Irena Stein strives for an 'A' at her Hopkins cafes.

Clutching her iPad to her chest, Irena Stein stands in the midst of the spacious, gleaming, sunlight-filled room that, in less than a month, will morph into a natural-foods cafe in The Johns Hopkins University’s remodeled Mudd Hall, her third on the Homewood campus. She lay awake for hours the night before mulling the final candidates for the new spot’s name—”My head is still spinning,” she says, drawing circles in the air with her right index finger—and now, 12 hours later, she runs the possibilities by her Dutch-born logo/website/signage designer Maarten Ottens—Amiel, Deseo, Acanto, and Baio. Finally, in keeping with the A-team motif of her two existing restaurants—Azafrán and Alkimia—they agree on Acanto (Spanish for the acanthus plant family).

Hopkins gave Stein the official go-ahead for the project only days earlier, and with just three weeks until its late-August launch, she frets about financing the venture and hiring suitable new employees. “The staff is what worries me the most,” she confides, “but we’ll figure it out.”

That Zen-like sensibility—she’s a practicing, not proselytizing, Buddhist—typifies Stein, 60, whose background in social work, cultural anthropology, and jewelry design defines her responsible and artistic approach to food selection, preparation, and presentation.

Fifteen minutes and a brisk walk away, she makes a pit stop at Alkimia (from the Arabic “al-kimiya,” for “alchemy”), her takeaway cafe in Gilman Hall, alternating between English and French as she confers with its Paris-raised manager, and then heads back to her office at her signature cafe Azafrán (Spanish for “saffron”), located in the Steven Muller Building—home of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and the center of the Hubble Telescope’s science operations—on the far fringes of the JHU campus. There, she deftly bounces between English, Spanish, and French while speaking with various members of her Benetton Nation-like staff.

That same cultural internationalism extends to Azafrán itself. Open weekdays and serving fruit salads, yogurt with honey, granola, and breads with homemade jams in the morning—not forgetting its all-day espresso bar—Azafrán devotes its principal energies to lunch, offering a standing menu of creative hot and cold sandwiches, soups, salads, and desserts, plus weekly specials that often reflect national or regional cuisines.

Working one week in advance, Stein personally devises these constantly changing specials—a kale/sausage/roasted potato flatbread entree and a chilled Thai-spiced watermelon with crab soup, to cite two examples—and sources a lot of her foods locally. She shops at farmers’ markets, Asian markets, and Restaurant Depot, augmented by deliveries and pick ups from Maryland purveyors such as Springfield Farm (meats), One Straw Farm (vegetables), Charlottetown Farm (goat cheese), and Black Rock Orchard (fruits). Environmentally conscious, the restaurant adheres to a mostly zero-waste recycling policy.

“For me, to feed people all-natural, homemade food is incredible,” Stein notes. “There is nothing industrial about what we do. If I’m not going to eat it, then I’m not going to have anybody else eat it.

(While Stein’s three cafes largely cater to Hopkins students and staff, they are open to the public as well.)

Fit, vivacious, and invariably dressed in elegantly casual attire, Stein launched Azafrán (what she calls her “improbable cafe”) in 2004 while running a catering business out of her Guilford home and working as a substitute pastry chef for restaurateur/food writer John Shields at The Baltimore Museum of Art-based Gertrude’s.

Back then, AURA—the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which operates STScI/Hubble—approached Shields about taking over its Muller Building cafeteria. Overwhelmed by a confluence of projects, Shields declined, recommending Stein instead.

“I had known Irena for some time and loved the food that she prepared for caterings and private parties,” Shields explains. “She is one of the best chefs in the Baltimore region—in fact, one of the best I know.”

Stein inherited a dining area that “looked like a boarding school,” she recalls, “with the colors of a McDonald’s and plastic flowers” on the tables, plus a grease-caked kitchen. With AURA and Hopkins footing the bill, she oversaw the space’s complete overhaul, constructing an open kitchen and a comforting setting.

The first six months were shaky, with many diners objecting to Stein’s higher prices and smaller portions. Open your sandwiches, Stein urged her customers, and examine the high-quality contents. Equally vexing: an entrenched super-size mentality. When lunch-goers told her that they weren’t full after a meal, she replied, “Yes, but the idea is that you go back to your office and you’re productive” instead of sluggish and bloated.

In effect, she was teaching her clientele a new way to think about food, about eating—a more European sensibility. This included eliminating massive doses of salt, sugar, and fats. “Slowly, people adapted to our ‘weird,’ multicultural menu,” she says, “until there was a complete level of comfort.”

These days, Azafrán feeds up to 250 people daily: approximately 70 percent researchers, administrators, post-doc and grad students from STScI and the nearby Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy and the Carnegie Institution for Science; 20 percent from the rest of the campus; and 10 percent from surrounding neighborhoods.

Among them, JHU/STScI astrophysicist Adam Riess, a 2011 Nobel Prize laureate in physics, who lunches at Azafrán daily: “I love how they throw hints of various cultures into whatever they do. I just had a special that was a large bruschetta topped with greens, prosciutto, and grilled peach drizzled with a balsamic glaze.”

Another regular, Antonella Nota—associate director for the European Space Agency (ESA) at STScI and a Hubble project scientist at ESA—appreciates the cafe’s “new and original recipes, drawn accurately from the international scene; the fresh and healthy ingredients; and Irena’s artist’s eye in the food presentation.”

Stein comes by her food philosophy naturally, not via a formal culinary education. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, she and three brothers were raised in a nurturing household that respected food, prepared at home daily and eaten together.

“My mom did everything from scratch, all natural, so we grew up cooking,” Stein explains. “It was an upbringing with a tremendous food experience; even though we lived in so many places, even though we traveled so much, we didn’t have any packaged food.”

Her Polish father left his homeland, presciently anticipating World War II, and eventually settled in Venezuela in 1936. He then worked as a film distributor for Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures, taking his Venezuelan wife and their kids to Paris when Irena was six, back to Caracas when she was 10, and then to Brussels when she was 15.

In Brussels, Stein earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the Institut Supérieur de Formation Sociale in 1976, focusing on community and cultural development, and served for several years afterward as a cultural coordinator working with the city’s impoverished adolescents.

Back in Caracas, she developed cultural programs for both the Venezuelan youth department and the National Library. Awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, she earned a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from Stanford University in 1982, after which she segued into contemporary jewelry design, creating limited-edition necklaces, brooches, and earrings that she exhibited at juried shows and sold in museum stores in the U.S. and Venezuela, all while living in San Francisco and, not incidentally, raising a daughter, Sofia. (Stein’s 1982 marriage ended in divorce.)

With the majority of her sales and shows based on the East Coast, Stein relocated to Baltimore in 1998 for its proximity to major cities and its affordability. But when a national guilt complex regarding buying luxury goods set in after 9/11, she was forced to call a career-path audible: “I needed to reinvent myself right away.”

Urged by friends to open a restaurant, she began instead by catering events for the local arts community, particularly galleries, working out of her home “in a 1950s kitchen that was falling apart” and the kitchens of two neighbors. Then came the stint with Shields at Gertrude’s and, subsequently, Azafrán.

Since then, Stein has maintained her catering business (using Azafrán’s kitchen), designing menus and brainstorming concepts for an array of arts, community, institutional, and private clients, including Riess, who chose Stein to handle the dinner bash thrown by his MIT fraternity honoring his Nobel laureateship.

In 2010, Hopkins contracted Stein to open Alkimia in Gilman Hall, serving salads, sandwiches, and desserts—ferried from Azafrán—to students, professors, and administrators. (Stein married Mark Demshak, an architect, in the airy, glittering atrium adjacent to Alkimia in 2012.)

Now comes the daunting prospect of preparing Acanto, which will offer a completely different menu from Azafrán and Alkimia. And barring any unforeseen setbacks, Stein will launch her first non-Hopkins-based restaurant next year in North Baltimore, serving what she terms “South American street food”: arepas, empanadas, tamales, and seviche. “I want to leave my Venezuelan imprint on Baltimore,” she says. She already has chosen a name, which, not surprisingly, begins with ‘A’: Alma (Spanish for “soul”).

You can bet that she will infuse the new place with her improbable governing food philosophy. “I want people to have the same pleasure and delight and deliciousness and loveliness as I do in my house,” Stein says. “We serve brilliant people. When they come here for that pleasure, we give it to them. The return is enormous feedback. They’re happy to come. They know what they’re putting in their stomach is very nice.”