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Take one bite of Chef Soleil Ramirez’s food, and it will flood your senses. The flavors of her polvorosa de pollo, a savory chicken pie, are layered and earthy. The crispy, delicate texture of its crust creates a vivid contrast with the robust pulled chicken inside. It’s a profile worthy of this 33-year-old’s journey from businessperson to Caracas-based restaurateur to political refugee to chef.
Ramirez, who fled political oppression and physical danger in her native Venezuela in 2016, found her footing quickly in the culinary world of Minnesota. She was chef de cuisine at the prominent Lexington restaurant in St. Paul for nearly three years before opening her own place, Arepa Bar, early this year in Midtown Global Market. Located in the former Mama D’s Kitchen site, the restaurant is a simple space–a kitchen stall accommodating take-out dining and some sit-down space in the market’s common area. Ramirez is planning to fill the wooden wall that flanks it with photos and illustrations of life in the Venezuela she remembers. It’s humble, but it’s hers.
“The reason I opened the restaurant is that it’s very hard to work for other people once you’ve owned your own thing,” said Ramirez, who added that she wants Arepa Bar to faithfully represent the flavors of her home country. In the process of coming to the United States, working in the food industry, and fighting to survive and thrive during a pandemic, Ramirez has faced a remarkable variety of challenges.
A country transformed–and left behind
Attending college in Venezuela, Ramirez was a student activist with the White Hands, a group dedicated to strengthening civil society against what many regarded as an assault on democracy by the governments of Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro. Her life in Venezuela was marked by rapid and sometimes horrifying change, as hyperinflation, corruption, declining oil prices, and ideological conflict tore the country apart. Political violence is common, as is rationing of food and other essentials. The U.N. says more than 5 million people have fled the country.
After graduation, she worked for large import-export companies.
“But something was missing–I wasn’t happy,” Ramirez said. “I always cooked because that was my passion. I came from that kind of a family–the grandma was always teaching everybody the dishes.”
So Ramirez headed to culinary school in Colombia in 2009, where she studied restaurant management with an emphasis on understanding the financial side of the industry. Upon returning to Venezuela in 2012, she started working at a small Caracas restaurant located in a private medical clinic. She helped the owner manage costs and his books, and ended up buying 49 percent of the business.
She stayed until 2016, when a man with a gun walked into the restaurant and changed her life forever. “He sat at a table with the three other people, and they brought out food from their backpacks and started to eat in my restaurant,” she said. “So I came to the table and said, ‘Hey, I’m so sorry, but we have a line of people waiting to eat at the restaurant, and everything you are consuming you didn’t buy here, and this is a private restaurant.’”
The man exploded with anger. “He pushed me, he broke a chair on my back … he told me, ‘You don’t know who I am, you’re going to die,’” she recalled. “I was crying on the floor because this guy hit me.”
Three months later, she said, the same man–who she has since connected with the pro-government Tupamaro militia–kidnapped her. It was this act of violence that shattered her faith in her home country and sent her fleeing to the United States in search of political asylum.
“If I’m honest, the country I was born and raised in doesn’t exist anymore,” Ramirez said. “I miss my home. But my home is not there anymore. They even changed our flag and the name of the country. What the people think Venezuela is, is not true–it’s not just a dictatorship and oil and drugs. That is not the Venezuela I grew up in.”
Finding a place in American kitchens
Despite having many family members living in Miami, Ramirez chose to settle in Minneapolis, where she was able to lean on the assistance of her aunt, her cousin, and his wife, who already had been here for about 20 years.
“In Miami, you can see a lot of people from the government there, enjoying the money they stole from our country,” she said. “After what happened to me … I didn’t want to see that. I really wanted to be completely apart from everything. I was very depressed. I was really scared.”
She started working in the culinary industry here, including a four-month stint cooking at Al Vento in south Minneapolis, a longstanding Italian restaurant that closed in 2019. Jonathan Hunt, the restaurant’s chef-owner, remembers Ramirez for her intensity and focus: “She had a lot of passion for the industry, and definitely a lot of passion for Venezuelan food and culture,” he said. “And she was a hard worker. Also very intelligent with the business aspects of things.”
He encouraged her to open her own place, and he’s enthusiastic about what she is accomplishing with Arepa Bar. “I think it’s awesome; it’s something unique and new for the Twin Cities market,” he said.
Her time at the Lexington in St. Paul, a bigger restaurant with heavier responsibilities, meant taking on a burden that was sometimes overwhelming. “When I left the Lexington, I was completely broken,” Ramirez said. “I didn’t want to cook anymore, I didn’t want to work in the industry anymore, I was completely destroyed. I was working 80, 90 hours a week. Every day … I couldn’t have an opportunity to visit my family, to see anybody, nothing.”
For Ramirez, running Arepa Bar is a chance to reset on her own terms, and a chance to build a different kind of kitchen culture. The COVID-19 pandemic, she said, is an opportunity in disguise.
“I think the pandemic is fixing a lot of things,” Ramirez said. “People are supporting each other more than ever. Everything is changing. They are not yelling anymore, that kind of old-school chef situation, where I put you down and don’t respect you and think you’re a machine and don’t care about you. That’s changing a lot.”
Grace Reyes, a server at the Lexington, recalled Ramirez as a positive presence in a sometimes stressful environment. “She’s very assertive, and has a very strong personality–strong in a positive way,” said Reyes. “When she moved to a higher position, chef de cuisine, she made sure everyone in her kitchen was taken care of … She also took a lot of feedback and input from servers when we had opinions about a dish, or how to have something go smoother–she was always willing to listen and take constructive criticism.”
The menu at Arepa Bar is concise and welcoming, filled with a mix of comforting and refined foods that evoke Venezuela in a warm, tangible way. Gooey arepas with crispy exteriors show her love of cheese-focused comfort foods, and dishes like the chicken pie and asado negro (beef braised in wine and chocolate) exhibit a warm blush of spice and a profound sense of umami, to so-called fifth taste of earthy, savory depth.
“Our food is very, very flavorful–our food can explode your tongue!” said Ramirez. “It’s salty; you’re going to taste the saltiness. It’s a little bit sweet, but also it’s sour, and also you have that umami flavor … Venezuelan cuisine has always had that flavor.”
That food, said Ramirez, will hopefully be her key to a new life–not just for herself, but for her team, now consisting of two full-time employees. “I want to offer a good place to work at,” said Ramirez. “And I want to show the world Venezuela is not just Maduro, oil, drugs. We are different … I don’t want just a place you can come and eat, and that’s it. I want it to be a place of culture. I want people to see Venezuela, and see who we are.”