From deportee and felon to chef and success story—from our partners at Tasting Table.
A childhood spent picking fruits and vegetables as a migrant worker in the U.S. Three years in a maximum-security prison. Two deportations back to Mexico.
Chef Eduardo "Lalo" García has experienced—and overcome—more in his 40 years than most people do in a lifetime. And today, he and his wife, Gabriela López, preside over a mini Mexico City restaurant empire that includes his first and most successful endeavor—Máximo Bistrot, one of the hardest-to-get reservations in town.
It's a Wednesday morning, and García is prepping for dinner service at the seven-year-old spot, set in a small corner space in Colonia Roma. With dark wood tables and chairs and unadorned white walls (save for one floor-to-ceiling carved relief), Máximo Bistrot is as simple as it gets—the better for showcasing hyper-local dishes like sea bass with green mole and purple cabbage, and handmade pastas such as pappardelle and ragù made with pork from Oaxaca.
García, who was born in a farming village in Guanajuato, regularly puts in 18-hour days. "I've worked my entire life like a machine," he says. It's a trait he's carried with him since the age of nine, when his father illegally brought him, his mother and younger brother to the U.S. in 1986. His father had been working in the states as a seasonal agricultural laborer, or bracero, since the early 1970s. Once there, they followed the harvest: mushrooms in Pennsylvania, citrus in Florida, onions in Georgia.
In 1991, they settled down near family in Atlanta. García, age 14, became a minimum-wage dishwasher at the Georgia Grille before moving up to the salad and sauté stations. "I was searing fish perfectly," he recalls. "I didn't know why or how, but I was good at it. I remember a Puerto Rican cook told me I looked like I'd been doing it for years."
The same colleague helped him get a second job at Brasserie Le Coze, from French chef Eric Ripert. At 16, "I was making vegetable terrine, pâté, rillettes, Nicoise salad," he says. "I didn't know what the hell it all was, but I made it. But I still didn't care about cooking and didn't believe that you could be recognized for feeding people. I was still considered a Mexican who goes to the U.S. and gets in trouble."
He was doing well professionally—becoming sous-chef at another restaurant—but trouble soon found him. After helping his cousin and friend rob a liquor store, García turned himself in and spent a year in county jail and three in prison before being deported at the age of 23 and banned from reentering the U.S. for 10 years. Two weeks later, he crossed back over after his father was diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer. (He passed away six years later.) García picked up where he left off in the kitchen, using a fake driver's license to land an executive chef position. "This was the point in my life when I realized that I wanted to be better than everyone else," he says. "I started to believe that I could be a very good cook."
But in 2007, García was deported again. Back in Mexico, alone and depressed, he began looking for work—eventually discovering Enrique Olvera of Pujol. "I found out he was the best and called him," he says.
Olvera remembers the conversation well. "He called the restaurant, and I happened to pick up. I knew right away that, as a migrant, he was incredibly hardworking, and he carried that with him. And he truly was the hardest-working chef I've seen in my life. I feel really lucky to have worked with him. And to see him succeed on his own is beautiful and inspiring."
Though extremely humble, García believes it's important now more than ever to share his story to inspire deportees not to lose hope. "I've always talked about it with the people who work with me, but I became more open last year, after a guy jumped off a bridge in Tijuana after being deported," he says. "I realized I needed to start letting people know that it's OK if you're sent back to the country where you were born. There are so many opportunities here. People from all over the world come and achieve things you wouldn't believe. Why can't we achieve something here?"
By Brooke Porter Katz
May 21, 2018
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