Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza counts Constantine the Great and Moctezuma among her ancestors, so perhaps her elevated distillation of Mexican cuisine comes naturally. It’s earned her five James Beard Award nominations and Food & Wine’s Best Mexican Chef 2017 designation. But it’s her immigrant, working-class roots she identifies with most.
Chef Esparza calls the food at her Phoenix restaurants Barrio Café and new plant-forward Barrio Café Gran Reserva comida chingona—badass food. And she is a bit of a badass herself. It’s not just her sleeve of tattoos, the thrust of her chin, and the ready-to-rumble set of her hips. As part of Phoenix’s ONE Community Foundation, a coalition pushing for more equality and diversity, Esparza put her own face on a billboard urging businesses not to discriminate based on gender preference.
When the Arizona Senate enacted anti-immigrant legislation, she spearheaded the effort to transform Phoenix’s gritty, graffitied 16th Street into Calle 16—“mi barrio,” she calls it—a vibrant gathering space and a source of pride for its Latino community, its signature murals commissioned by the chef and painted by local artists.
On The Day Without Immigrants, Esparza also closed her restaurants for the day to protest President Trump’s immigration policies. And she and her staff served free meals to federal workers during the recent government shutdown.
Her actions have won her praise in some quarters, as well as a fair amount of hate mail. But it doesn’t stop her. And that, too, is part of her 800 years of ancestry. “I come from generations of advocates for those who cannot advocate for themselves,” she says.
A lesbian with Mexican roots, Esparza spoke with Civil Eats about the future of cuisine (“exciting”), the future of America (“troubling”), and the reason she sees the kitchen as one of the best places to address both.
Cooking is in your genes; you come from a family of bakers.
My grandfather had a bakery, La Especial in Juarez, where he trained all of his 11 sons. It was where my parents met and married, by the way. She, the cashier; he, the cute baker in the back. My father took what his father did to California. He moved with my mother from Juarez in 1958. By 1966, he had already opened his first of many bakeries in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, in the small farming city of Merced. I watched my uncles own and operate their own bakeries. I trained in these bakeries, always dreaming that I would not be like them.
I remember it was summer. I was in the back of the bakery helping my father with the grinding of the nixtamal into masa, with my brother at the end of the machine counting tortillas as they arrived on the conveyor belt. Behind us were my father’s two brothers, doing what their father taught them, baking Mexican bread. Outside, it was over 100 degrees, and inside, it felt like 140. It was then that I swore to myself I would never follow them. But at 27, I came back, begging my father to teach me the family business.
What changed for you?
I imagine it’s part of my DNA. I have always loved being in the kitchen; it calls to me. I am a natural at it, and I realized I’m also a natural at being a leader. The kitchen has never failed me.
So, which came first for you, cooking or activism?
It’s like what came first, the chicken or the egg? I was taught both by my father who was a humanitarian, a baker, and a preacher. He would sell bread from his van at the migrant camps and then turn around and preach to them on Saturday. As long as I can remember, baking, the business associated with it, and preaching have always been part of our way of life.
I have modified what my father taught me to fit my personality. I incorporate baking into my cuisine to honor that legacy—chile relleno wrapped in puff dough for example—and my preaching is not about God, but about equality and betterment for all.
You do more than preach about advancement and equality for all, though, you act on the ideals. Knowing how you feel about the hard work involved in a culinary career, why do you mentor up-and-coming chefs?
My father taught me to be of service to my community. That’s something I strive to do to this very day in every way I can. I have been mentoring young students who are part of a high school program called C-CAP [Careers through Culinary Arts Program]. They are also Dreamers for the most part. I take them under my wing and let them shine.
You’ve also advocated on behalf of immigrants and the LGBTQ community.
Inequality is something that affects me to my very core. I am a full-blown, confirmed, and certified lesbian who also happens to be the daughter of immigrants. As a first-born American, I always knew that I had rights—American rights, truth, justice, and all that bullshit. But life showed me different.
As a child in the 1960s, my family attended McSwain Elementary in Merced—it’s still there. [Back then] it was an all-Anglo school—not just white, but country white. Cowboy boots and Wranglers were the school uniform. I spoke Spanish and wore bell-bottoms, and my hair was sort of a full-blown Afro. For many, I was their first encounter with a person of color. I was alienated from social events and was told things like, “You are not dirty, for a Mexican… I thought all Mexicans were dirty.” Or “Your daddy owns a business? Aren’t you guys from Mexico?”
What makes the kitchen an effective place to fight for social justice?
Food is political, whether you like it or not. Immigration, the price of oil, labor, the lack of labor, the growing minimum wage, the lack of employees, insurance costs, the freaking stock market, and the government shutdown all have an effect on the food we eat.
An immigrant’s hands have [probably] touched your food. If that alone is not political, I don’t know what is. Immigrants have silently been serving and feeding us without reproach for the hard labor and unfair treatment they have received from their willing employers for generations. I’ve watched them suffer from the shadows without a voice.
In Arizona, we had a sheriff that terrorized the Mexican community by setting up illegal checkpoints only in our community. Fear was thick and there was a mass exodus from Arizona after the racist SB 1070–the “show us your papers” law—was signed by the governor. No one wanted to work as a dishwasher or prep cook. We lost a giant part of our workforce, something that to this day has not recovered. Legal or not, folks were not willing to stick around in a state where a group is picked on because of the color of their skin.
I stood up and spoke against this law, leaving me on a list called Boycott the Boycotters. Did it hurt my business? Yes, it did. I saw a decrease in business from my Anglo customers and received scores of letters and phone calls stating they would not return to my establishment due to my stance on SB 1070. I have also received death threats and personal insults galore. But staying quiet when I see an injustice is not part of my DNA.
The foundation of my success as a chef was the immigrant crew that wanted to work for me. We built a friendship beyond the walls of the kitchen. Weddings, deaths, quinceañeras, holiday parties, deportations, you name it—I have been part of their lives.
A lot of food calling itself Mexican in the U.S. isn’t. How do you determine what is authentic Mexican cooking?
Mexican food is a gift from the gastronomic gods. I love my Mexican-trained palate, but I have never have claimed my food to be Mexican cuisine. It’s a cuisine inspired by my study of Mexico, my own family history, and my personal story and history. I travel extensively through Mexico and am involved with the [group] Cocineras Tradicionales of Oaxaca, where I continue to be inspired beyond words.
But even then, I cannot claim to cook authentic Mexican food. It’s impossible in the United States. Everything from the nixtamal to the water and environment is different. For the most part, American cuisine tends to be bland compared to other cultures; yellow cheese and flour-thickened red sauce are not part of the Mexican cooking vernacular.
Can you say more about why you’re giving your cuisine a plant-based spin at your new restaurant, Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva?
I am crushing the iconic menu I wrote at the Barrio Café and starting over with a vegetarian menu. The menu I wrote in 2002, although it has evolved, was written by a whole different person. I have evolved as a person and a chef. Mexican food is plant-based by nature—huitlacoche, nopale, chayote, hoja santa. I am excited to see what I come up with. Even at 58, I still have big plans.
Considering you were ambivalent about having a career in the kitchen, why do you stick with it?
The absolute most rewarding part of cooking is watching people eat, enjoy, and be amazed.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
All photos courtesy of Chef Silvana.