Yadira Stamp worked in the culinary industry for more than 30 years, taking on virtual every job that came her way, all the time honing her skills for her dream – owning her own restaurant. On July 20, 2015, her dream came true when she opened Esencias Panameñas Restaurant & Catering at 3322 Georgia Avenue, NW, showcasing the diverse provinces of Panama, and the Caribbean.
A native of Panama City, Panama, Yadira Stamp realized her passion for the culinary arts at an early age, assisting her mother in the kitchen to prepare meals for clients. Uncertain of a restaurant career, Stamp worked as an executive consultant and senior business analyst for 32 years before realizing that her culinary interests hadn’t waned.
Stamp decided to pursue her passion for the kitchen and earned a culinary arts degree at The Art Institute of Washington (AIW) in Arlington, Virginia. Upon graduation in 2010, she immediately accepted a position at Pinzimini, an Italian-inspired eatery located within The Westin Arlington Gateway. From 2010 to 2011, Stamp performed virtually every job available to her, as part of an internship program required for AIW’s graduate students. She worked as a dishwasher, a busboy, a waitress, a line cook, a bartender and a front-of-the-house assistant manager. She also shadowed both the executive chef and front-of-the-house manager in the hopes of acquiring additional skill sets that were covered in school.
Over the past 30 years, Yadira has served her culinary creations to churches, weddings, graduations, birthday parties, as well as at private homes in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. She has performed cooking demonstrations at the Farm-to-Street Party as part of the Eat Local First Week, as well as during Growing Healthy Schools Month, which celebrates the D.C. Healthy Schools Art in public schools throughout the District. She also volunteered for three consecutive years, from 2009 to 2011, at The Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show, which is an annual two-day culinary extravaganza, which provides one-of-a-kind experience for all food and entertaining enthusiasts.
Yadira believes in giving back. In 2012, she became a volunteer at N Street Village, a community center that provides services for homeless women in Washington, D.C. For the past four years she has cooked and served meals for 40 to 50 women, twice per month. In 2014, she participated in The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance’s annual Turn Up the Heat Gala, where she prepared and served her native Panamanian dishes to 400 attendees. Then in 2015 and 2016, as a member of the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GWHCC), she participated in their annual Business Expo at the Washington Convention Center, where she prepared and served her native dishes to 250 attendees.
Stamp answers our questions about her remarkable career.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
This is a very interesting question. I remember watching my mom in the kitchen always cooking or baking something for a party or event. I even remember my dad not eating from anyone else other than my mom because according to him “no one could cook/bake like her.” I even remember her forcing me to be her assistant in the kitchen and not having any interest in it because at the time I wanted to be an astronaut. But then she passed, and then came Christmas and I wanted to eat a piece of fruitcake and I didn’t know how to make it. I also received pressure of my mom’s old customers calling to ask me when their fruitcake would be ready for pick-up. I called my mom’s best friend for help and was able to bake the fruitcakes just in time for the holidays. When my mother’s old clients said that my cake was tastier than hers that ultimately inspired my second passion – food!
Esencias Panameñas Restaurant
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I love the joy that my food brings to others, particularly to kids. Kids can be brutally honest and to get a hug or a smile from a kid or to even hear the parent say that the kid never ate that before yet, they are eating my food, just makes my day. I feel free and liberated when I am in the kitchen; it is the only place where I get inspired and I am able to create magic at my discretion.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
It began at my mom’s side at a very young age. I continued on a “part time” basis by doing some catering. However, at 45, I set a goal to return to school and get a culinary degree and become a restauranteur by 50. I worked hard and kept my eyes on the prize to achieve that goal. The fact that no matter how exhausted I was from the day before, I would get up each morning and look forward to going to school and put in six hours after working 10 hours with my day job was my confirmation that this is what I wanted to do. I graduated at 48 and became a restauranteur at 52.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
Both of my parents are deceased and therefore, I was not fortunate to have family support. To be honest, I am not sure if my mom was alive if she would have been supportive of this career change. Earlier on when I began contemplating the idea, I began to share my vision with others thinking that I was “speaking it into existence” only to have people try to discourage me or flat out tell me that it would never work, that I was crazy to want to quit my “good and secure” job to get into the restaurant business. They would go on to remind me that three out of five restaurants close in the first two years and my response would be that “my restaurant will be one of the two that will remain open.” I never allow anyone to get in my way or in my head. There are two women – Pamela Spong and Susan Kidd – two complete strangers, my ex-bosses that saw potential in me that no one else saw. These are two successful women who encouraged me and who I look up to and who aspire to be, unbeknownst to them.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
Not a career change, but there have been times that I have questioned myself and wondered if the people that told me that I was crazy for leaving my job, whether or not they were right. But it will be short lived since I would quickly remember reading Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and how successful she became in spite of her adversaries, and that is my motivation to continue to keep my eye on the prize.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
My career has not reached a tipping point. I work very hard to get as far as I have; failure is not an option.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
This is a hard one, but I have to keep it real. October 1982 I became homeless. My brother-in-law told my sister that she had to choose between us (family) and him and she chose him. I was just a teenager and a foreigner from Panama. I am an introvert so I did not have many friends, and I only knew a few people. Unfortunately I did not have anywhere to go. I convinced a guy to agree to leave his truck unlocked at nights where I would sleep. My break finally came when I met an older couple that took me in against their children’s will. I remember “Daddy” saying to one of his daughters that was his house and that I would stay with them and that it was final, followed by “she is not going to cause us any harm, there is something about her that let me know that she had a good upbringing.” I stayed with them for a little over a year and continued to go to the University. I came from Panama with a full scholarship and I was determined not to lose it. Although I graduated two years later (1984), I continued to go through many challenges and it took 10 years to finally get my career break (1994). That is when I met Pam Spong, the first person to see my potential and to give me the opportunity to work and demonstrate my skills and capability and thanks to her my career began to take flight. I remain in the lives of the couple that took me in, but just like my parents, they have both died.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Another hard question . . . single skill for me would be “determination.” I am a very determined person. I accomplish anything I set my mind to – as long as it does not require me to compromise my morals and/or values
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I know that I am going to get a lot of feedback for my answer, but again, I must keep it real. . . I am not there yet. I don’t feel like I have done anything yet, in my opinion, that is worthy of being my “most” proud accomplishment. Yes, I am thankful for the blessings that God bestowed upon me and the many doors that he has opened and continues to open. However, personally I feel that that I have come a little short. For example, in the past, had I become the astronaut that I aspired, then that would have been my most proud accomplishment, but I didn’t. In the future, when my restaurant becomes famous and I open my second location, then that will be my most proud accomplishment.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Yes, it is hard work, and many will try to discourage you, including you. But stay focused, follow your heart and do not allow anyone to get in your way or rain on your parade. Keep negative people at arm’s length – even if family. Stay strong and stay focused and remember that God does not give us more than we can bear.
For more information, go to the website for Esencias Panameñas Restaurant & Catering.