An immigrant woman thrives in the culinary world

Dec 18, 2019

Through a network of support from local organizations, one immigrant woman has overcome challenges to make her mark in the world of fine dining.  

An American journey: risking it all to strive for a better life

The story of Tatiana Romero, a single mother and domestic violence survivor from Honduras,  is a quintessential American tale: an immigrant’s journey toward a better life, powered by courage, hard work, and a few helping hands.

“My life in Honduras was, like for the majority of women, very hard,” recalls Romero. “As a single mother and a teacher, I also had a lot of different kinds of conflicts. One of the most difficult moments was when the father of my daughter was trying to strangle me to death in front of my children. I got to the point where I said, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’”

The day she decided to leave Honduras to try to build a better future for her children, she didn’t say goodbye to anyone from her family.

“No one knew that I wasn’t coming back,” says Romero. “It was my sister’s wedding the next day. I grabbed my kids and said ‘Okay.’”

When Romero crossed the southern border and looked for agents to seek asylum in the United States, she and her children were not met with open arms.

“They took us to a place called ‘The Dog House’ where they take your first declaration,” recalls Romero. “Then they put you in a type of cell where they have a bathroom and there is a bed made of cement.”

Fortunately, Romero was not separated from her children. And when she arrived in the Stamford area, she received a much warmer welcome from Building One Community – The Center for Immigrant Opportunity, a FCCF grantee that supports immigrants in fully integrating into the community.

“I am profoundly grateful for Building One Community, because I learned so much,” says Romero.

Helping immigrants thrive benefits the whole community

Since its founding in 2011, Building One Community (B1C) has served nearly 11,000 new immigrants settling in the area who hail from 102 countries around the world, from Guatemala to Afghanistan.

Their need is significant. More than 65% of the immigrants B1C serves are very low income and live below the poverty level. They speak limited English and are unfamiliar with navigating American systems of education, public transportation, and healthcare. And their path to financial self-sufficiency is all the more challenging as they lack an existing network for job referrals and references.

B1C strives to bridge the gap by focusing on “the four E’s”: Educate, Employ, Empower, and Engage. From teaching English and job skills to coordinating volunteers, the organization provides a full spectrum of support to help immigrants take root and become productive members of their new neighborhoods.

“We think of ourselves as a holistic community center,” says Dr. Anka Badurina, Program Director at B1C. “Life is multi-dimensional, from jobs and kids to health. That’s why we provide wraparound services for immigrants. Whatever they need, we are here as a resource worthy of their trust.”

Helping immigrants succeed is a net benefit for the community, says Badurina. Especially in Fairfield County’s wealthier communities, immigrants fill the need for service jobs that American-born workers are not eager to pursue, from landscaping and healthcare to childcare. While national statistics estimate 28% of all home health aides are immigrants, at a recent event with local employers, that number increased to 90% in Fairfield County cities other than Bridgeport.

“Those taking care of our vulnerable populations of seniors and children are another vulnerable population – immigrant women,” Badurina says.

Not all workers who emigrate to Fairfield County are unskilled laborers, she notes. New immigrants who have pursued education and a career in their home country may not be able to immediately transition to similar jobs in the U.S., due to language barriers and credentialing requirements.

“In Tatiana’s case, she was a teacher back in her country,” says Badurina. “That doesn’t mean she can come to Fairfield County and be a teacher the next day.”

To support her in the transition, B1C connected Romero with English Language Learning classes where she could master basic language skills, and one-on-one and small group settings to practice speaking English in a more intimate environment.

Then, through B1C’s Workforce Development Program, Tatiana enrolled in culinary classes that taught her both soft skills and technical skills. After graduating from the program, Romero began finding short-term culinary jobs through B1C’s Hiring Site, a job matching service where employers can connect with skilled workers.

When she was matched with catering company Ratatouille and Co., her fledgling culinary career truly began to take off.

“Ratatouille has been my school and my university in everything that corresponds to the area of food,” says Romero. “It has helped me so much.”

Learning culinary skills – and growing as a community member

Ratatouille and Co. is a sophisticated catering company with a social purpose: to empower refugee and immigrant women with the tools they need to become independent and successful in the culinary arts.

CEO and Founding Partner, Evelyn Isaia, launched Ratatouille in 2016, after a successful career in private wealth management. For Isaia, a member of the Board of Directors of CIRI – the CT Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, a member of Women’s Business Development Council’s Advisory Board, and a former member of Social Venture Partners Connecticut – the new business combines her commitment to helping women achieve financial self-sufficiency with an enduring love of hospitality and food.

From elegant presentation to exquisite flavor to the highest level of service, Ratatouille elevates dining to an art form. At the same time, it gives clients the opportunity to do good. Ratatouille sources its staff from trade schools, community colleges, and nonprofit organizations such as B1C that focus on workforce development.

“When you hire Ratatouille, it’s not just a fabulous meal and a fabulous event,” says Isaia. “It’s yet another opportunity to see how these women can shine.”

And in Romero, the Ratatouille team discovered a megawatt team member.

“We noticed right away that she had very good skills and an amazing attitude,” recalls Isaia. “She wanted to improve herself. It was just a go-getter attitude that showed she had aspirations to make something for herself.”

At Ratatouille, employees get more than just an opportunity to develop advanced culinary skills. They also tap into a support system that encourages growth, self-confidence and connection with community.

For Romero, that network of support included a connection with INTEMPO an organization that brings music education to all children in the community. Romero’s daughter, Valentina, was awarded a full scholarship to study violin with INTEMPO through a program that offers help with homework and a firsthand taste of the arts, from being in a multilingual choir to performing with a symphony.

INTEMPO’s afterschool program also offers more flexibility to help working parents succeed, and Romero seized the opportunity to do just that. Ratatouille team members have gone on to work at some of the best restaurants in the tri-state area, and Romero ultimately progressed to a job with Jean-Georges in New York City.

“She kept growing, not only as a chef but as a member of the community,” says Badurina. “Seeing how the women not only learn technical skills, but build self-confidence is something that brings lots of joy to us.”

Inspiring others through stories that change the game

Helping new immigrants become successful and thrive is not work that can be done by a single organization. Rather, it requires collaboration.

“It takes a community of providers to build a healthy community,” says Badurina. “It’s the work of many.”

Fortunately, the area has a vibrant network of nonprofits, philanthropists, and social venture organizations to support these efforts. FCCF is among them, with a longstanding commitment to empowering women and girls and a strategic plan that focuses support on immigrants as one of the region’s most vulnerable populations.

“FCCF has always been a very strong catalyst for this work,” says Badurina. “Beyond the economic support, it’s helpful just knowing that someone acknowledges and supports our population.”

Recently, FCCF’s Fund for Women and Girls provided a mini-grant to help Isaia to make a short documentary about Romero’s journey from surviving domestic abuse in Honduras to breaking into New York City’s world of high-end cuisine. It was screened at The Westport Library at a panel discussion that explored the intense journey so many immigrants face, and how local nonprofits empower them to build a new life.

“These are the stories that don’t always make it to the news,” says Badurina. “This is a way to amplify the voices of the women whose stories don’t always get told.”

In a media environment awash with political rhetoric that vilifies immigrants, she notes this type of storytelling can be a gamechanger.

“When you hear the news, immigrants are oftentimes presented as a group that is removed from our community,” says Badurina. “But when you see Tatiana and others like her, they become real names, stories, faces. You start seeing their lives in a different light, and understanding and connecting with things that you often may not face in your own life. That can be very powerful.”

Isaia also hopes other immigrant women will be inspired by Romero’s story.

“Life can be difficult and unstable and there can be challenges,” she says. “We want to let immigrant women know these difficulties can be overcome, and they can lead a productive life and thrive. And they have a lot of resources available to them in Fairfield County.”

As for Romero, despite heartbreak and setbacks, she is fully embracing her new career and life in America – and is profoundly grateful for the help of the people and organizations who served as guiding angels for her journey.

“Destiny already had it reserved for me,” she says. “There are so many blessings that have come my way.”