Going for It: Rapid Reinvention

Inspired by immigrant success stories

I spent an inspiring evening at the residence of the Ambassador of Spain last night, where the New York City-based Vilcek Foundation held a reception to honor Washington celebrity chef Jose Andres, a 2010 recipient of the organization's fifth annual immigrant achievement awards.

The foundation was started by Czechoslovakian-born immigrants Jan and Marica Vilcek to pay tribute to foreign-born contributors to the arts and sciences in the United States. Jan Vilcek, a microbiology professor at New York University School of Medicine, has given NYU more than $100 million in royalties from a treatment he helped develop for rheumatoid arthritis.

The foundation he created with his wife, an art historian, honors two immigrants each year who fuel innovation and enrich society--one for achievement in the biological sciences and one for excellence in the arts. Andres was awarded for his contribution to culinary arts. The winner in the biomedical category this year is Russian-born biochemist Alexander Varshavsky, a professor of cell biology at Cal Tech who has done work that could lead to breakthroughs in cancer treatment. Each was awarded $50,000 and a scupture created by designer Stefan Sagmeister.

Andres, owner of eight acclaimed restaurants in Washington, including Jaleo, Cafe Atlantico and Zaytinya, was feted by the Vilceks and Ambassador of Spain Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo and his wife Teresa. Dezcallar called him the unofficial ambassdor to Spain and discussed Andres' commitment to bringing Spanish food, wine and culture to America.

"I have been an immigrant all my life," Andres told the 125 guests, who sipped Spanish wine and sampled hors d'oeuvres including potato and chorizo, a spicy sausage, saffron gum drops and chocolates infused with salt.

Andres said that he had been welcomed warmly in the United States and had always felt embraced by his adopted country. He discussed the opportunities that had been presented to him as an immigrant and his interest in sparking a national conversation about food. Staffers said he will use the prize money to start a foundation to establish a food policy.

The foundation also recognizes the accomplishments of younger immigrants with its Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise. Last night, Laos-born pastry chef Varin Keokitvon, who trains homeless and disadvantaged women and men to become independent through working as chefs at FareStart in Seattle, said that he had turned to cooking after "making some bad decisions" as a teenager. He discussed the metamorphasis of the people he works with. "It is truly amazing to see what happens," he said, after they establish a skill that can move into the ranks of the working.

Amazing people. Great evening.


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  March 10, 2010; 7:13 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Most Americans like legal immigrants and acknowledge their contribiutions to our society. We are also often admire the work ethic of many illegal immigrants.

However, we see our fellow citizens, who are unemployed and we don't buy arguments made by some that our fellow citizens are lazy and don't want to work, or that American citizens will always refuse to do work that gets their hands dirty. That is such outdated thinking.

There's a new reality. Americans are adapting to that new reality. There arn'e enough jobs to go around. Citizens should not have to compete against illegal aliens for the jobs that remain.

The same economic bubble that created the housing and financial crisis helped attract illegal immigrants to jobs in construction, restaurants, hotels etc., all of which expanded based on easy credit.

Those days are over. Americans can't afford to sustain the jobs that attracted illegal immigrants. We have more than enough houses now, we eat out less and are otherwise tightening our belts. Americans are working as gardeners and handymen to feed their families or to pay their tuition bills, when they can find such work. Many of my college daughter's friends are seeking work to help pay tuition just like we did growing up.

It's time illegal immigrants departed with the other affects of the easy credit economic bubble.

The easy credit party is over. Guests go home when parties end. Hosts clean up the mess, which is likely to be a long difficult process.

Good luck to all the illegals in their home countries.

Posted by: jfv123 | March 10, 2010 4:54 PM
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Legal immigrants like me are very proud of the success stories of other legal immigrants. The US offers us all the opportunities that our birth countries do not, including law and order. Those who seek to undermine US law and order only show their disrespect and contempt for all that this country stands for. There's no doubt about the contributions of legal immigrants. Just don't dump us together with the illegal ones.

Posted by: legitbrownie | March 10, 2010 2:01 PM
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We all admire legal immigrants who come to America and make good.

But there is a cancerous problem called outlaw or illegal immigration that is giving all, true immigrants a bad name. There are 20,000,000 or more of these illegals roaming America at any one time. They have made an art out of breaking American law and getting away with it.

The really outrageous part of this whole mess is that there are politicians who insist on rewarding these outlaw immigrants with cheap and easy American citizenship.


Posted by: battleground51 | March 10, 2010 12:46 PM
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