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Stepping into Esencias Panameñas Restaurant & Catering on Georgia Avenue feels like a warm hug from Central America. The colors pop and the smell of fried yucca fills the air. The restaurant is from chef and restaurateur Yadira Stamp, who came to the U.S. from her native Panama in 1978 when she was just 16. After a 32-year career as an executive business consultant and senior business analyst, Stamp enrolled in culinary school. Now, her rabo de buey (oxtail), arroz con pollo, and pargo entero frito (whole fried snapper) taste like Stamp’s been in professional kitchens her whole life. But embarking on an encore career isn’t easy.
After decades as a globe-trotting businesswoman, Stamp felt a calling to return to cooking, which was a big part of her childhood. She enrolled at The Art Institute of Washington (AIW) in Arlington and managed to go to school full time while also continuing to work. “I went to school five nights and Saturdays, so I went six days,” she says. “It was a killer but I wanted to finish by December 2010,” she says.
There, she was older than not only her fellow students, but almost all of her instructors. She was worried about taking class alongside students who were just exiting high school. “Instead of being behind the eight ball, I was ahead of them, but I did go in totally afraid because I thought I would have struggled to keep up.” However, Stamp knew how to cook Panamanian food already, so she was there chiefly to learn the business side of restaurants.
Her externship was at Pinzimini Restaurant, an Italian-inspired eatery in the Westin Arlington Gateway hotel. There, she acquired a mentor who further taught her the financial aspects of the industry. At the same time, she was also volunteering at N Street Village, a local organization that provides services for homeless and low-income women. She cooked and served meals to 40 to 50 women about twice a month and says the work of N Street Village is close to her heart.
When Stamp was finishing college in the ’80s, she slept in a friend’s truck bed and showered in dorms until she met a family that took her in for a year. “After that, I felt that I wanted to pay it forward,” Stamp says. “I bounced back, so whenever I start getting down, I have to remind myself that once upon a time that happened to me. If I could do it then, I can do it now.”
Stamp opened her first restaurant Esencias Panameñas Restaurant & Catering on July 20, 2015 in D.C.’s Park View neighborhood, pulling from experience in her business career to make it work. “Even though it’s a total 180 from what I was doing with the government, the business side of it is still similar because business is business,” she says. Her career taught her decision-making skills and knowing what questions to ask. “That part of it prepared me for this because now that I’m dealing with purveyors as opposed to other types of business people. It’s still business, and you still have to do contracts and negotiations.”
She has one big piece of advice for people looking to have an encore career in restaurants: Don’t rush it. Stamp explains she set a goal for herself after graduating from culinary school to open a restaurant in five years. She met her goal by opening in 2015, but she wishes she waited longer for a better location. “My mistake was, I gave myself a five-year plan and because I did not want to fail on that plan, when I got to that fifth year that was the deal breaker, that’s when I became desperate,” she explains. “Even though it’s good to set goals, don’t lock yourself into the goal to the point where you don’t give yourself wiggle room should something happen.”
Esencias Panameñas Restaurant & Catering,3322 Georgia Ave. NW. (202) 688-7250. esenciaspanamenas.com