Chefs Stand Up

Chefs Stand Up: How Alex Raij and Eder Montero Avoid Generational Trauma

Alex Raij and her husband, Eder Montero are an anomaly. In the fall of 2018 the couple opened the doors to their fourth restaurant — a notable achievement by any measure, but particularly in a moment in which other family-owned, neighborhood-centered restaurants are closing with rapidity. Their food — an ode to the Basque country, Eder’s native home — is all smarts and heart. In our conversation, Montero and Raij (whose parents were born in Argentina) speak with eloquence and detail about the immigrant experience.

The immigrant experience is different for everyone, but the identity assumed is always in context to the place you’ve come from or the place you’ve arrived. Is that true?

Alex: You know, I’m interested in the idea of home and where you make your home. For me it's about language. When I met Eder, I started to live in that language (Spanish) again, which felt like home. Living in a particular language can be a story of its own.

Eder: Exactly. My daughter (who is 9) jokes with me, like, “Don’t worry, we’ll learn English together.” And it’s true, I learn how to write and how to spell with her. So in that way, it has been great to be an immigrant with her so that we can learn the language together. Learning to spell with my kids has been an interesting experience for me because I can be there for them and they can be there for me.

And Eder, what about you? How you do think about your identity in the context of an immigrant living in New York?

Eder: I’ll never be who I was back home. As they say, “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” For me, it’s kind of the same thing. I’m Basque outside of the Basque country. I advocate for Basque culture through food, but for me, for better or worse, I will always be an immigrant. Because of the way I talk, the way that I think, and so on.

I’ve read that remaining connected to your own culture is important for generational trauma.

That’s a substantive thought. But if you can never grow out of the experience of being an immigrant, does the way you identify with the experience depend on where you coming from or arriving to?

Alex: I’ve read that remaining connected to your own culture is important for generational trauma. My parents never had to deny who they were or where they were from, they from and I’ve been the beneficiary of that. But it’s changed now. Now we’re talking really life and death stuff. We’re no longer cloaking ourselves in the ideals of this country, we’re just destroying the institutions.

Right. Like, immigration in 2018 means something different than it did just a couple years ago.

Alex: Yea. Nothing feels safe. Even privilege. You can’t even protect that. Everything feels very precarious and I think that’s part of the reason cooks feel so drawn to these causes.

As an immigrant and the daughter of immigrants, how else do you think these stories have shaped your own?

Alex: My parents came here with nothing on their own when they were 26. Eder came here with nothing at 26, but the impression is that because he’s from Europe, the immigrant story doesn’t apply to him. We were joined by the ability to communicate and share this thing (cooking), and sharing a meal is one of the most stunning ways to communicate.

Alex: And Eder came for a couple years to and expected to go out, but...

Eder: (Laughing and shouting) But loooove!!!

Alex: *eye roll*

Eder: (More laughter) For New York, of course.

Eder: When I was little, my grandmother’s brother left the Basque. He left, then after 50 years, just came back one day. We found out that he had moved to New York and gotten a job at Ford or something like that.  He died when I was four years old, but I remember him and I always think about how interesting it is that of all of his grandkids, and my cousins that I’m the one who ended up here. I always think about that.

When I went to the Basque once without Eder, I was on a farm where we slaughtered a pig with this family.

Alex: When I went to the Basque once without Eder, I was on a farm where we slaughtered a pig with this family. These kids came out and started playing an accordion and I just sat there, I didn’t want to leave. It was just so beautiful. The way that we were eating, and what we were eating, and the kids… they were really working really reminded me of Argentina. So I have this ideas about expansion and contraction like this idea of accordion. Leaving and coming back.

Wow.  That’s a really beautiful image.

Alex: One thing about Eder that was so refreshing is that he just had this one singular experience (of growing up in the Basque) that was he was so insulated that it sort of led to a purity of experience here. I was blown out away by the whole fish out of water aspect of everything.

So how do you convey this all through your food?

Alex: The cooking is the idea. It's not organized in a talking way, it’s organized on the table. I want to present food that speaks to our experience.  Sometimes you're searching for safety, sometimes for comfort, but in immigration or migration, that’s what connects us, that’s what enriches all of us, and it’s our context with one another that humanizes us.

Obviously you’re participating in the Chefs Stand Up benefit, but even before this dinner, you’ve used your restaurants as a way to be engaged.

Alex: No matter what your vocation is there is an opportunity to show that humanity. It’s not always possible to know where the best ideas come from, but it is important to acknowledge that we are all richer because of immigration and migration. It’s almost like the tension between the purity of the past and the idea of progress.


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