How Lalo García Went From Farmworker to Celebrity Chef | Civil Eats

How Lalo García Went From Farmworker to Celebrity Chef

In a new biography, reporter Laura Tillman tells the life story of the Mexican chef—including growing up as a farmworker and deportation to Mexico at age 30—as a lens on U.S. and Mexico’s conjoined food and labor systems.

Laura Tillman at left, with the cover of her latest book, The Migrant Chef, about celebrity chef Lalo Garcia, at right. (Author photo by Jackie Russo)

Author photo by Jackie Russo.

Mexico’s food system is marked simultaneously by endurance and upheaval. During the centuries that came after the arrival of Spanish colonists, much of the country’s crop diversity was lost as settlers sought to Europeanize the New World. During the 20th century, many Mexicans migrated to the United States to work in grueling and toxic conditions as farmworkers, some through state-sponsored pathways such as the Bracero Program, others by crossing the border and working undocumented. And in the 1990s, NAFTA caused another rupture, flooding the country’s market with cheaply produced corn and feedlot pork from the U.S., in turn pushing small farmers off of land they had cultivated for decades.

Today, a handful of chefs in Mexico City are seeking to revive the country’s genetic diversity and pre-industrial foodways—similar to the way that chefs like Alice Waters and David Tanis reinvented fine dining through farm-to-table ideals and spurred a resurgence of interest in local ingredients and small farms in the U.S.

One of those chefs, Eduardo “Lalo” García of Máximo Bistrot, knows the deleterious effects of industrial, chemical-dependent agriculture firsthand. Born in 1977 in the village of San José de las Pilas, Guanajuato, he grew up laboring alongside his family in fruit and vegetable fields across the U.S. in the years after NAFTA eviscerated Mexico’s rural economy. He later spent his formative years working as a dishwasher and line cook in Atlanta, before being deported to the country of his birth in 2007.

Since that return, he has become one of Mexico City’s most famous chefs. His three restaurants—Máximo Bistrot, Lalo!, and Havre 77—have gained widespread recognition for their distinctive French-Mexican cuisine and their commitment to sourcing local, fresh ingredients—including, most recently, “Best International Restaurant” in Food and Wine’s Global Tastemakers awards.

The new book The Migrant Chef: The Life and Times of Lalo García, by Laura Tillman, uses García’s life story as a lens onto the larger shifts underway in Mexico and the United States’ conjoined food and labor systems. Tillman, whose first book, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts, is about a Texas death row case, moved to Mexico City in 2014 for her husband’s job as a foreign correspondent and came to García’s story as she looked for a book-length project that stemmed from her love of food.

Civil Eats spoke with Tillman about the political significance of García’s life story, Mexican cuisine’s long history of innovation, and how readers can share in its flavors and creativity from wherever they happen to be.

How did you come to this story?

I’ve always been interested in food and cooking on a personal level. And when you move to Mexico City, food is a big piece of getting to know the city, both in terms of the amazing restaurants but also that you start to pick up on many of the dynamics of the culture and history of Mexico through educating yourself about the food.

Originally, my thought was to write a book about all the people who worked in a restaurant kitchen—using it as a crossroads of Mexican life.

A photo of chef Lalo García shared by the Bistrot Máximo Instagram account. Chef García crouches in a chinampa, a traditional farming technique developed by the Aztecs. (Photo credit: @maximobistrot)

Chef Lalo García crouches in a chinampa, a traditional farming practice first developed by the Aztecs and still in use in Latin America today. (Photo credit: @maximobistrot)

Then I met Lalo and heard his life story, which is pretty dramatic. I realized that his story touched upon a lot of these issues that I was interested in telling through different people’s experiences—he’d been a migrant farm worker, he’d been the dishwasher in a kitchen, he’d been the person on the line. He had all of those different perspectives. He brings a multifaceted point of view.

On top of that, it was a moment in his life when he was interested in telling his story, because it was during the Trump presidential campaign, and there was this “bad hombre” narrative in the news. So, his story had started to feel politically significant in a way that it hadn’t up to that point.

Because of the way his childhood was, reading and writing are pretty labor-intensive for him. He wanted to tell his story, but he wasn’t going to write it himself.

How does the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico appear in García’s life, and in the book?

For the middle half of Lalo’s life, he was in the U.S., and it’s a place he feels very close to. There’s a lot at play in his story in terms of the types of exploitation inherent in the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. He and his family were migrant farmworkers. He’s been deported multiple times, and he can’t return to the U.S.

But he also has a deep love for the U.S. and its culture. This past Thanksgiving, for instance, he did this huge Thanksgiving meal at this hacienda outside Mexico City. It was the most amazing Thanksgiving I’ve ever experienced—and it was in Mexico. That day means a lot to him, partially because [while he was in the U.S.] it was one of the only days of the year when his family wouldn’t work.

In The Migrant Chef you describe the rise of farm-to-table restaurants in Mexico City, partially inspired by chefs and restaurants in the United States. How did that type of dining come about there?

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It’s interesting because there are different currents taking place at the same time. You have restaurateurs who are inspired by U.S. figures like Alice Waters and these movements in the U.S. But at the same time, they’re also really inspired by the history of Mexican agriculture and the ingenuity of using all these different ingredients in different ways.

Before the conquest, Mexico already had a very complex cuisine. For example, the list of foods that were taken to one of Hernán Cortés’ ships in 1519 included things like tortillas, tamales, and quelites [wild greens] that are still very central to Mexican cuisine today. And it’s hard to think of what could be more farm-to-table than the milpa [a form of traditional agriculture in which fields are intercropped with maize, squash, beans, and other crops].

In general, the way that colonization worked in Mexico was that mostly men came from Europe. So, over generations of colonization, most of the cooking was still being done by Indigenous and mixed-race women, which I think is partially responsible for the way that Mexican food has really endured.

That traditional Mexican food, which Lalo grew up on, hadn’t really been recognized as belonging in a fine dining space, but it had been the food that people loved and cherished in their families—even in the upper class, where they would have cooks in their homes that would come from other parts of Mexico and bring that food to them in their dining rooms.

Now, you come to Mexico City, and this fine dining scene that emphasizes Mexican food is so vibrant and exciting, so full-throated. But this “fusion” cuisine is continuing a very long tradition of a gastronomy that’s connected to innovation, whether because of scarcity or because of plenty.

It’s continuing a tradition of people like the chef Mónica Patiño, whose family had a cook that would make things like French pastry stuffed with rajas [sliced poblano pepper] and cream, and whose family grew up eating things like tacos de nopales [cactus pads] alongside champagne, and those didn’t seem like strange things for them to combine. But it’s also continuing the innovation of someone like Natalia, Lalo’s mom, who was essentially doing the same thing on the road, because of scarcity.

For these restaurants that are aiming to recuperate Mexico’s genetic diversity and foodways and to innovate, what does the sourcing look like?

Some of the small farms are in Xochimilco, which is the section in the south that most resembles ancient Mexico City. It was essentially an island in the middle of a shallow lake, [and now] it’s a series of canals where there are these man-made islands called chinampas that are made of compost and where they still use old farming methods to create a super nutrient-rich soil.

There are other farms on the outskirts of Mexico City that are doing similar work to the milpa system, where you don’t just have homogenized agriculture, you have different plants that are intercropped and that lend their characteristics to one another to grow together.

There are a lot of conversations about the ongoing tourist-ification and gentrification of Mexico City. I imagine that fine-dining restaurants like Máximo Bistrot probably have a lot of tourist patrons—and that this book is going to make people want to visit. Are there ways that these kinds of top-tier restaurants, which are inaccessible to most local residents, have a positive impact on local economies and food systems?

It’s complex. In her book Eating NAFTA, Ayesha Gálvez critiques this role of fine-dining chefs—the irony that the ingredients that are being presented in some of these dining rooms are only possible to rescue when they’re already endangered. You can take an example like mezcal, where the chef Mónica Patiño spearheaded a movement to bring it into the dining room of her restaurant in a way that was trying to get people to appreciate this drink that had been kind of looked down upon.

Fast forward 15, 20 years, and now it’s this super popular drink, even abroad. Big companies have moved into Oaxaca and are dominating its landscape, and the price of the primary materials to make it have skyrocketed. It’s definitely capitalism at work.

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At the same time, I think there’s a ripple effect that happens. For example, I’ve watched Arca Tierra, which is one of the main groups that does traditional chinampa farming. That traditional agriculture has gained a bigger and bigger following over the years that I’ve lived here. Whereas at one point it seemed like they were in danger of not being able to continue and exist, now they’re doing really well.

I don’t want to over-emphasize their importance, but the impact it has is real. Even if it’s not completely changing the whole system, it is changing parts of the system and having a positive effect.

For readers who feel the excitement of the rich cuisine that you describe in The Migrant Chef, but aren’t themselves in Mexico—how can they capture a piece of it?

One of the things that happened when I was reporting this book was that I had two kids—so I became a kind of short-order cook for these two very difficult clients that were in my dining room night after night. It made me look at my own creative process in the kitchen in a more generous way: I might not be the head chef of some fancy restaurant, but I like being creative.

There’s a quote in the book from Yuri de Gortari, who started the first cooking school in Mexico that was devoted to teaching Mexican cooking techniques. He said to me: “You know who’s truly creative in the kitchen? The housewife, because she’s cooking with inspiration from the fridge.”

I think about that when I’m feeling a little desperate. It has made me feel more a part of this lineage of mostly women, but also men, who are innovating out of necessity with the way that they cook, and the way that that can be a creative act as well. Lalo has people he idolizes as chefs, but the people he idolized the most in the kitchen were his parents. So, I’ve developed an appreciation for the fact that as we all approach our cooking and our food, we’re all participating in this tradition in some way.

One very basic thing that I learned to make that was really transformational for me was salsa tatemada. It’s a salsa where essentially you char a bunch of vegetables—tomatoes and onion and chile and garlic—on a comal or griddle, and then you blend them with salt, and that’s the whole recipe. But you can use it to make amazing enchiladas or chilaquiles or just eat it with chips. It’s one of those things where you open that door and a million possibilities come in, and you start to see how you build flavors in Mexican cuisine.

Caroline Tracey is a writer whose work focuses on the US West, Mexico, and the US-Mexico borderlands. Her work appears in n+1, the Guardian, Rest of World, and elsewhere, as well as in Spanish in Mexico’s Nexos. She holds a PhD in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley. Find her on Twitter at @ce_tracey. Read more >

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