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September 12, 2023

Meet Latino James Beard honorees: How this national recognition impacts Latino chefs and makers

By: Mando Rayo

Latinos are gaining more seats at the table at the James Beard Foundation Awards! Get to know some of the past and current winners, nominees, and semifinalists from across Texas: 2023 James Beard Award semifinalist Mariela Camacho of Comadre Panadería, 2023 James Beard Award finalist for Best New Restaurant Emmanuel Chavez of Tatemó, and 2022 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo. Learn from their perseverance, their beginnings, and how they got the attention of this prestigious national foundation.

The full transcript of this episode of Tacos of Texas is available on the KUT & KUTX Studio website. The transcript is also available as subtitles or captions on some podcast apps.

Intro I’m Elizabeth McQueen. And I’m Miles Bloxson. And we’re the hosts of Pause/Play, a podcast about live music, why it matters and what comes next. You know, and for me personally, I am just crazy for breakfast tacos. So the sound of tacos for me are like getting that bag, opening it up, finding which one your taco is, opening up the foil, putting some salsa on your taco, and then just, like, delighting in the taste of one of my favorite things, which is breakfast tacos. Ooh, that sounds good. For me, the sound of tacos depends on where you are in the world. Like if you’re in Los Angeles, you could get tacos on the street. Like just by walking down the street. You can, you know, smell the tacos from afar. You hear the cars passing by, you can be leaving, you know, a club or bar late at night, and somebody might be cooking them right outside of the establishment. So, it’s just the smell. Like I just go where the smell is.  I think everybody knows where the taco is. You know, like when somebody is making tacos, you know, what it smells like. You’re like, “Okay, you’re making tacos. I want some of those.” I’m always here for it. Yeah, for sure. I’m Elizabeth McQueen, and I’m Miles Bloxson, and you’re listening to Tacos of Texas on KUT. [music]

Mando Rayo And the ‘Jaime Barba Award’ for best invention ever goes to the taco. What’s up, taco world? I’m taco journalist Mando Rayo and welcome to the Tacos of Texas podcast, season tres tres tres, produced by Identity Productions in partnership with KUT and KUTX Studios. And we’re back exploring taco culture in Texas through the eyes of the people in the Lone Star State. So grab some tweezers and your chicharrón charcuterie and get ready for some muy tasty taco conversations. [music] In today’s Tacos of Texas, we talked with Texas-based chefs that have received recognition by the James Beard Foundation over the last two years. We speak to a nominee and a semifinalist from this year’s awards, as well as last year’s winner of Best Chef. Our guests include chef Mariela Camacho of Comadre Panadería, an Austin bakery that creates high quality pastries and Mexican sweet bread made from responsibly grown and sourced ingredients. Chef Emmanuel Chavez of Houston’s Tatemó, a restaurant that revolves entirely on nixtamalized corn and its integrity. And chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo, an Austin Restaurant dedicated to serving delicious traditional Mexican food. We’ll hear from each of these chefs to learn more about them, to hear what it’s like to experience various levels of the prestigious food competition and to understand the impact that an accolade like this can have on a chef, especially those from historically under-recognized communities. If you have any aspirations of becoming a James Beard winner someday, you’ll want to take notes. [music] “Ooh, that place was nominated for a James Beard Award.” You’ve probably heard this phrase before. Maybe it helped you make a decision on which restaurant or food business to support when you’re faced with so many food options. A James Beard nomination alone can positively affect a business, earning them press, which brings more customers in, brings up morale and contributes to the overall success and sustainability of a chef, restaurant or business. The awards are presented by the James Beard Foundation, which has been around for over 30 years. The foundation gets its name from James Beard, who is known as one of America’s first foodies. A struggling actor turned caterer, James Beard, found his spark in the food world. He became the host of the first TV program in 1946 and raised a whole generation of cooks and chefs through his school, his travels, articles and many books. When he passed in 1985, friends and colleagues, including world renowned chef Julia Child, came together to form the James Beard Foundation, a place that provides a center for the culinary arts, and to continue to foster the interest that James Beard inspired in all aspects of food, its preparation, presentation and, of course, enjoyment. The first James Beard Awards were given in 1991 and started the shift towards the celebrity chef. As with many of our country’s most prestigious award shows, the James Beard Foundation has had a history of further marginalizing underrepresented groups like Latino, Black and Asians in the culinary world. In 2012, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain live-tweeted while watching that year’s award show, pointing out that Latinos basically run our food industry and get no recognition. He challenged people to count the Mexicans at the awards and quickly ended his count at two. In a 2016 Remezcla article, writer Yara Simone pointed out that although Anthony Bourdain has previously said Latinos are the backbone of the food industry, the truth is we are also at the forefront. That year, 13 Latinos were nominated across 21 categories. And speaking of this taco journalist and Identity Productions were a 2022 James Beard nominee. [whoops twice] The publication 5280 notes that in a span of 19 years, only 2.4% of their nominees had been Latino. A recent Bon Appétit article walks us through a timeline of drama around the foundation over just the last three years, from lack of diversity in its pool of winners and its staff and leadership makeup to issues of transparency and its processes. And we have seen progress, though, with more equitable numbers. This has already started to have a positive result on the recognition of Bipoc communities, including the first taquera to receive an award, Edgard Rico of Nixta Taqueria, based in Austin, Texas, who won “Emerging Chef” in 2022. Today, we are exploring why these new changes are important to our Latino communities. We’re hearing directly from chefs in Texas as to what it means to them to have this kind of industry recognition. [music and crunch sound effect] Oh, it’s taco time. And now here’s a word from our sponsors from me. [crunch sound effect] Vamos that Chuco town con Visit El Paso. It’s the hometown of this taco journalist. Enjoy concert, play, film or show at El Paso’s Plaza Theater. As a national historic building of significance, built in 1930 and restored to its original atmospheric theater splendor in 2006, the Plaza Theater Performing Arts Center is a beautiful sight to enjoy in downtown El Paso. Performances held at the theater include Broadway shows, performative art shows, concerts and more. Weekly tours of the theater are free to the public every Tuesday at 12 p.m.. El Paso’s mural scene. Through the neighborhoods of El Paso, you will come across beautifully crafted murals and designs created by a mix of local El Paso artists of all ages and artists from across the globe. The artistic community of the Sun City have left their imagination and creativity around El Paso. Intricate murals decorate the city, filled with designs of El Paso leaders, culture and history. Muchas gracias to our friends at Visit El Paso for sponsoring this podcast episode. Follow Visit El Paso on Instagram and Facebook at Visit El Paso or on their website at Visit El Paso dot com. [crunch sound effect] Waterloo Greenway has you covered when it comes to concert tickets for our Moody Ampitheater at Waterloo Park. As part of their commitment to making the arts and outdoor spaces accessible para todos. They’re giving away 100 free tickets. I repeat 100 boletos gratis to the community for every concert. All you have to do is go to Waterloo Greenway dot org slash giveaway and enter for a chance to win a pair of tickets to an upcoming show. Moody Amphitheater Community Ticket Giveaway forms which will be open for entries throughout the year and the winners are randomly selected and notified one week before the concert. Don’t miss your chance to check out a show at Downtown Austin’s premier outdoor amphitheater for free. Follow Moody Amphitheater on Instagram slash Facebook at Moody Amphitheater and sign up for their email list to get notified when the giveaway forms are open. Mil gracias to our friends at Waterloo Greenway for sponsoring this podcast episode. Follow them on Instagram and Facebook at Waterloo Greenway or at their website at Waterloo Greenway dot o-r-g. Our first guest is 2023 James Beard nominee Mariela Camacho, founder of Comadre Panadería. Comadre is inspired by Mariela’s experience of growing up chicana in America. Comadre’s mission is to create high quality breads and pastries grounded in experience and intuition that use responsibly grown and sourced, local and possible ingredients to sustain our community. We brought Mariela into the studio. Here’s our interview with her. So in the studio we have Mariela Camacho, founder of Comadre Panadería. Sounds like my kind of comadre. Welcome.

Mariela Camacho Thank you. I’m very happy to be here.

Mando Rayo Mariela, tell us a little bit how you got started.

Mariela Camacho I have been baking for 15 years. There wasn’t a lot of resources for me to take the path of higher education or college or any of that. So I was just like, working in kitchens because that’s what my family did. We just, like, didn’t have anything else to do, Like we were poor. So I just started working in kitchens and I gravitated towards baking and it just worked with my personality. I can be a little neurotic and very like, I love the repetitive dance of it. So I started baking and I grew up in San Antonio, moved to Austin, moved to Seattle. I learned a lot there. And then I was like, Oh, I really miss Texas. I really miss my family. I really miss being around like Spanish speaking people. And even in kitchens, I didn’t really have that up in Seattle. So I was like, I’m going to start making pan dulce. I started working for people. They all wanted French pastries, so I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to make food that I was proud of. So I just started making pan dulce. And it just worked.

Mando Rayo And it just worked.

Mariela Camacho It just worked.

Mando Rayo Why do you think that is?

Mariela Camacho I think because people I don’t want to say, like, what we’re doing is special, but it kind of is like, I think we’re just like, we’re sort of a mess. We’re traditional Mexican, but also very Texan.And also, like, trying to respect indigenous foodways and still, like. Understanding that pan dulce comes from European traditions. It’s just like acknowledging the mess that food can be sometimes. I think people are just like they like it.

Mando Rayo And so what goes into your process of making your pan dulce?

Mariela Camacho A lot of stress and physical intensity because I’ve been doing it for so long, it feels like I’m in this pattern, this rhythm. So like I’ve got all of these recipes, like we usually have like ten things on our menu and I change the menu weekly. I have, like I make a polvorón one week with almonds, like an horchata and brown rice flour. The next week I make it with mesquite and pecans. The next week I don’t do that at all and do a masa cookie. So it’s like I’ve got all of these really solid recipes that I’ve developed from doing this business for five years and then just add in weird ingredients or what seasonal or like, or like if I can get mesquite beans or pods from someone, you know what I mean? Then I’m like, Oh, let’s throw that in there. You know what I mean? Just like just kind of using whatever. We’re lucky enough to get or work with.

Mando Rayo Right. When you go to a traditional Mexican panadería, I mean, you’re talking about a 20 point menu system here. [laughs]

Mariela Camacho I love it, I love it.

Mando Rayo It’s just like the colors and the cremas and the pans and the polvos. It’s all mixed in there. Yeah. And how do you keep track of all of them?

Mariela Camacho I know it’s easy. I’m used to it now. I feel like we’re all so wrapped up in, in our identities. I think I only identify as a baker. Like, this is my path. This is. Yeah. Yeah. It just works with, like, everything that I want to be like. So I think for me, it comes naturally. Yeah.

Mando Rayo Yeah. Well, give me a rundown of, say, your top five that you’re making right now.

Mariela Camacho We always have conchas on the menu. We always do chocolate concha. So we put chocolate in the concha because I love chocolate.

Mando Rayo Yes. Who doesn’t? Right.

Mariela Camacho And we’re sourcing chocolate from Hijita. She’s making chocolate here in Austin. Ashley, the owner, is amazing. Very delicious. Usually or specifically works with Mexican chocolate that a lot of people think are like too tart or acidic. She’s really found a way to, like, bring the beauty out in it. So the chocolate concha always sells really well. The polvorónes, they’re also completely plant based, so that just makes them so available to people.

Mando Rayo Mm hmm. And describe the polvorónes for us.

Mariela Camacho The polvorón is like a mexican wedding cookie, so it’s.

Mando Rayo Okay. Like bizcochos.

Mariela Camacho Yeah, right. So it’s, like, very crumbly. We toss them in powdered sugar, they’re not too sweet, and they’re like, kind of fatty, you know, like, como polvo. Yeah, yeah.

Mando Rayo Yeah, yeah.

Mariela Camacho They’re really fun to eat. They kind of break apart on you sometimes, which is kind of fun. It’s interactive. I do a lot of masa madre, so a lot of sourdough based things. Okay. All of my, like, laminated pastries. The European aspect of what I do. Those sell really well like I just did a corn in a cup croissant, so like where you would eat from corn in a cup and I just put in a croissant.

Mando Rayo Oh, okay, nice. Love it.

Mariela Camacho What else sells? Tortillas! We do like tortillas harina, I love them.

Mando Rayo Is it San Antonio style? Or your own style?

Mariela Camacho I think it’s, I think it’s, yeah, Oh, yeah. I use a lot of whole grains. Yeah. So it’s like a little more nutrient-dense.

Mando Rayo Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mariela Camacho So, we’re lucky to have Barton Spring like Mills here. So I get freshly milled whole grains, Sonora flour.

Mando Rayo Okay, wow.

Mariela Camacho There’s so much flavor.

Mando Rayo Yeah. Yeah.

Mariela Camacho It fills me up more. It’s more nutritious, you know. So I love making tortillas like that.

Mando Rayo You’re nominated for a James Beard Award this year. How did that happen?

Mariela Camacho I don’t know. It just happened. I, like, woke up and I was, like, at my table, like, doing my emails, being kind of grumpy, And all of a sudden, like, I started getting texts and emails, and I was like, Oh, my God, what did I do? Like, I’m in trouble.

Mando Rayo I’m in trouble.

Mariela Camacho Like, Oh my God, what is going on? And then I saw that I was nominated. I was like, How, how, how do they even know about me? Right? I’m tiny and this big. Yeah, that’s big.

Mando Rayo Yeah, yeah.

Mariela Camacho And I’ve always been kind of like an underground business. We work a little bit outside of the norm, like we say no to a lot of people because we think it, it doesn’t exactly line up with our ethics. Um, so we very much like an underground business. Okay. I had no idea I was on their radar.

Mando Rayo Wow. And how did this impact your business?

Mariela Camacho I blew up.

Mando Rayo Yeah? You blew up, you blew up! You went viral, you went viral.

Mariela Camacho I went viral. You know, it just like. Orders started coming in and I got emails like from people being like, We would love you in this new brick and mortar space that we’re building out. And I was like, Where have you all been? Like, all of a sudden opportunities and access just opened up for me and I was like, But I’ve been here. Where were y’all?

Mando Rayo Right, right, right, right, right. Yeah.

Mariela Camacho I really needed y’all two months ago. I really needed you. It’s just like the access and the power that that foundation has. It’s crazy.

Mando Rayo Yeah. For this episode, we’re interviewing a lot of Latinos, Mexicanos, Latinx. It’s a big deal.

Mariela Camacho It really, it really is. I think especially since, like, the foundation took a break. Like, I think we took a year off the day they did because they got called out.

Mando Rayo They got called out. Oh, that’s right. Yeah.

Mariela Camacho And so I feel like they’ve come back with some pretty respectable values. And honestly, it feels more important now because I feel like they are acknowledging and honoring people that are changing the game. Oh, yeah. Or have changed the game for years already.

Mando Rayo Yeah, yeah. And they’re finally getting that recognition. I agree, I agree.

Mariela Camacho Exactly. So I just like knowing now that there are some really wonderful food makers and writers and just like people that are being recognized, for me, it makes it more important. Yeah, because it makes it more valuable. More valid.

Mando Rayo Yeah. Yeah, Yeah. We just wanted our abuelas’ approval, right?

Mariela Camacho Exactly, exactly.

Mando Rayo Not this James beard, but hey, take it and run with it.

Mariela Camacho I mean, I’m so grateful. Yeah, I’m grateful.

Mando Rayo What would you say to someone that I guess is used to traditional pan dulce. Right. And they’re like, Okay, well, let me try your style.What would you say?

Mariela Camacho I think it still hits those traditional points. I think visually, it still looks like things people are used to. You know what I mean? And I think we bring such vibrancy through, like, colors. I really haven’t had a lot of resistance from whether it’s like an older, like an abuelita or Latin person. I really have not had many haters. Yeah.

Mando Rayo Yeah, that’s good. Yeah, good. That’s awesome. I love it. Well, thank you so much for being here. I guess we’ll see you out at the panadería.

Mariela Camacho Yeah, I’ll be there.

Mando Rayo [music] Our next guest is 2023 James Beard Best New Restaurant finalist, Emmanuel Chavez of Tatemó in Houston. Emmanuel emigrated to Texas from Mexico City at the age of 11 and spent after school days helping his family business, which was a Tex Mex restaurant. Emmanuel rediscovered his Mexican roots while he spent three years in the Pacific Northwest. He returned to Texas and opened Tatemó, where the main focus of the cuisine revolved entirely on nixtamalized corn and its integrity. We were actually able to sit with Emmanuel at his restaurant while his team prepped for service. Here is our chat with him. Bring out your bilingual listening skills here because this interview is in Spanish and Inglés .

Emmanuel Chavez Salud. Bienvenidos.

Mando Rayo Gracias, Emmanuel. Aquí estamos en…donde estamos?

Emmanuel Chavez Estamos en Tatemó.

Mando Rayo Yeah?

Emmanuel Chavez Estamos en la primera o la segunda fase de lo que es Tatemó. Tatemó es un restaurante de 14 sillas, es la salvación nada más. Nos enfocamos en importar maíz de México. Nos gusta mucho el tema de la tortilla de la distribución. A quién no, que no importa quien lo siembra, quién lo mantiene, Para nosotros ese tema de cruzar fronteras es algo que no se toma mucho con nosotros. Para nosotros fue una plataforma perfecta empezar con un restaurante chiquito y tener la oportunidad de tener estas pláticas vía tortillas de maíz. a quién lo produce y lo más importante, quién lo envía.

Mando Rayo Este y comenzar sesión en cocina?

Emmanuel Chavez Se puede decir que si mis papás trabajaban en restaurantes Tex-Mex.

Mando Rayo Aquí en Houston?

Emmanuel Chavez Aquí en Houston las taquerías, Tepatitlán.

Mando Rayo Okay.

Emmanuel Chavez Este a lavar platos desde muy niño y no me salía hasta los 18 y a los 18 me tomé la carrera un poquito más en serio. Allá me puse a investigar quienes eran los chefs o qué tengo que hacer yo para estar en una cocina con un poquito más de poquito más de formato?

Mando Rayo Sí, sí, sí. Este yo también era lavaplatos.  A mí me decían el Bogart era el nombre de, de la máquina. [laughs]

Emmanuel Chavez Yo era el Balita [both laugh] Para mí era lavar platos. Es la cosa más humilde, más sencilla del mundo. Se tienen que tener muchas agallas, muchos huevos para lavar platos por siete horas y siempre hay que hacer lo mejor. Algo haciendo tu trabajo bien en Chicago. Un trabajo bien hecho. Siempre hay que mantener esa adrenalina.

Mando Rayo Si anda el jale, si las ganas.

Emmanuel Chavez Eso es verdad.

Mando Rayo Si, ese es… [laughs] Pues, sabes? Aquí estamos en tu lugar. Sirves?  Cuantos días o meses son para 14 personas, verdad?

Emmanuel Chavez 14 personas.

Mando Rayo Sí. Y por qué decidiste comenzar así? Súper sencillo. Pero también con el menú elevado. Verdad?

Emmanuel Chavez Creo que el espacio nos dijo qué hacer. Hace era necesidad abrir un restaurante porque no teníamos de otra. Ya nos veíamos como para cuando iba. Cuando empezamos, no veíamos para cuándo iba a terminar la pandemia. Empezamos. Empezamos muy chiquito. Empezamos vendiendo más tortillas. Al principio yo sera Tatemó, una compañía que se enfocaba en vender más tortillas. En Farmers Market ya ha pasado antes. Poco a poco fuimos incorporando comidas y platillos y nos empezamos a volver a enamorar de las carreras, porque ya cocinando ya tenía 15 años. Casi como que se enamora, ya es una relación feliz, te quita eso. Yo ya me sentía que me estaba quitando más de lo que me daba. Poco a poco ya me estaba haciendo para atrás un poco más en ese tiempo en el negocio de la masa, la tortilla, y poco a poco me fui volviendo a enamorar de las cocinas, a la carrera de la chinga de 16:00. Y hasta que dijimos que no, que ya estamos todas en esta. En este instante lo quiero volver a hacer, vamos a darle con todo. Y pues como no quisimos tener business fitness, juntamos todo lo que teníamos, personal y clases de este local que era una juguetería y como inmigrante en uno uno viene a darle, no espera mucho con lo que tienes que ingeniar. Y así fue. Chiquito sirve, tiene, tiene, tiene campana, tiene trabajadoras escolares, a ver qué sale.

Mando Rayo A ver qué sale. Van a salir unas tortillas, no?

Emmanuel Chavez Sí. Que se hagan las tortillas y se puedan enfriar y calentar.

Mando Rayo Y ya tienes la atención de Juan Barbas.

Emmanuel Chavez No?

Mando Rayo James Beard? [both laugh].

Emmanuel Chavez Yo no pensando ‘Juan Barbas.’

Mando Rayo Now you’re, you got the attention from James Beard. What does that mean for you?

Emmanuel Chavez Validation. Validation for the team, validation for the community, validation for peers, for culture more than most, for our culture and validation for our culture. People are starting to see Mexican cuisine as something serious. It’s no longer something cheap, inexpensive or fast. It’s something that deserves attention, recognition, and we’re going to go in a lot of money. It’s got a lot of money behind it. People are growing, people are harvesting, shipping. It’s about time we we put that back into our into our soil, to our communities.

Mando Rayo Yeah, thinking about being James Beard nominated. I think it has the opportunity to open doors, especially for Mexicanos and Chicanos that, to be honest, I don’t know how much we’ve been part of telling our own stories in that way. So how are you going to utilize this recognition to go further?

Emmanuel Chavez I mean, right now we’re at a point of what can we create? It’s time to give women a voice, because in the beginning the demo was my idea. But it’s as you can see around, it requires a lot of people. And each one of those guys has their own story, their own motivation. They’re part of Tatemó. They’re part of the Tatemó DNA. Yesterday, I wasn’t even here for service and they ran the restaurant like it was theirs because it is theirs. Certain chefs have just been here since day one. Yeah, he has a palate, he has the best palate I’ve ever seen in my life. Without them, we don’t succeed as a whole. So my job now is to give them the platform because I can only go so far. I have gone so far. I need to return the favor. I ensure that my team gets put out there and make sure that they’re actually set up for success so they can share their own stories. Because I’m going to come and go. My name will come and go. Who’s going to come after me and I. If people are going to come after me, I would rather to be within my team to take this even further.

Mando Rayo Yeah, Yeah. So when somebody comes in, they make a reservation. What can they expect?

Emmanuel Chavez From the outside? Not much. As you see, we’re a small plaza. It’s a strip. What are they call them? Strip malls?

Mando Rayo Strip malls. Yeah.

Emmanuel Chavez But I think that’s so Houston. We’re next to a donut shop.

Mando Rayo Oh, it’s totally Houston.

Emmanuel Chavez So, like, hidden. There’s no signs, there’s no door– hours in the door is very like speakeasy, so to speak. And that’s part of the charm. If you have a reservation, you’ve either heard of us, or done your research or you supported us since the farmers markets. People come here, now they come with a lot of expectations because of the James Beard.

Mando Rayo Yeah.

Emmanuel Chavez Before that, it was like curiosity to see what we were doing. Now they sit down and they’re paying $130 per person plus gratuity. They’re expecting an incredible dining experience. They’re expecting a best new restaurant nominee to deliver. But the game on every night. Yeah, which is good. It’s good for the team.

Mando Rayo To say tonight, what are you serving tonight?

Emmanuel Chavez So it’s a progression of dishes. So that has to be something that’s that reminds you of Mexico. But it’s not a Mexican restaurant. It’s a Houston restaurant that’s inspired by Mexico that is driven by corn. Everything that we put on the menu has to have maize. And I say maize because it’s the byproduct of corn. So that’s the most important thing. Then it has to be tasty, right? Smaller versions of things that you can find in Mexico. Quesadillas, sopes, collos, gorditas, things of that nature. Right now, we have enmoladas that we featuring which is going to contradict everything I just said. It has no corn in it or maize in it. But there is the idea of nixtamalizing plantains, making tortillas from plantains. So there is that idea of it’s tied with what we doing. We don’t get a tortilla, we’re going to nixtamalize it, which is a technique that we’ve studied for almost five years. So now we’re nixtamalizing a lot of things. Strawberries, peaches and other grains, farro, quinoa. Things of that nature. So that’s how that plantain ended up on the menu.

Mando Rayo Mmkay. So how do you go from corn to maize to to autoyuda, to tortilla, to masa.

Emmanuel Chavez Which starts with a selection of seed, which usually takes around February. Campesinos pick select the seeds for the next harvest. They harvest for six months. They go and plant the seed. It grows, they feed it. Did they grow up the land and things like that. And that’s what we know as mipa. They take care of the mipa or their harvest. After that, after you get the vegetable or the fruit, then you have to wait six months for the stalk to dry out. And then that’s that’s your actual seed of maize. From there, that’s another harvest which you actually have to go and break and deseed the grenad, store it, clean it, bag it and then ship it. So it’s an entire, it’s probably that’s a year process just to get for us to get back so of corn that’s not even including the time that we spent purchasing it either picking it up from the frontera or cooking it here, which takes us 9 hours to nixtamalize an hour, 2 hours to grind, maybe another 5 hours weight press hydrate the masa. It’s an entire life cycle that that requires a lot of time and a lot of people because of that, we’re not allowed to tell the chefs we the last once touching, touching this, it’s it’s in our hands. I think all the people that have worked hard, tirelessly, and probably for not a lot of yeah in order for us to do the easy part which sell it and we’re the ones being celebrated, which should be the other way around, should be celebrating them because they’re the ones actually helping us out with the harvest. But we do the easy part, you know, the glamorous part.

Mando Rayo Coming back kind of full circle. You mentioned that this is important for the culture, right? Not only the nomination, but having gone from a farmer’s market to here, right. To a brick and mortar to a small. Why is important for your culture?

Emmanuel Chavez Because when you believe and you get nominations like the James Beard, that that believe is no longer a belief. It becomes a reality, that reality is no longer a dream. Imagine we give more of those away to like people that look like us with no college degree. With tattoos. We’re very little opportunities out there. So think is extremely important when our culture, especially on this side of the border, gets a little recognition like that because now we have eyes on us that you can’t mess up. You know, there’s kids looking, there’s people out there like looking at us like, I want to be that. I want to be a part of that. So now you have a responsibility to deliver in the restaurant, and outside the restaurant, because that’s how the restaurant’s probably more important than the restaurant itself, how you carry yourself. That’s what you want to leave behind. The men behind the stove in the apron.

Mando Rayo Yeah. Love it. That’s great. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you just letting that squeeze in to your small spot here [laughs].

Emmanuel Chavez En su casa. Cuando quieran venir.

Mando Rayo Sí, gracias por el mezcal.

Emmanuel Chavez And I hope you liked it.

Mando Rayo Y felicidades.

Emmanuel Chavez Thank you. We’ll be in touch for sure.

Mando Rayo Our final guest is James Beard Award winner chef Iliana de la Vega. Iliana grew up in Mexico City in a time when only European cuisines were viewed as elegant and worthy of being served at restaurants. Hoping for others to see how worthy and tasteful Mexican food can be and that it can belong in fine dining, Iliana moved to Oaxaca and opened El Naranjo in 1997, where she also opened a cooking school. A period of political unrest forced her family out of Mexico, and Iliana reopened El Naranjo in Austin in 2012. She was a James Beard semifinalist in both 2019 and 2020 and finally won Best Chef in Texas in 2022. Iliana is also a recipient of the Ohtli Award, the Mexican government’s highest honor given to Mexicans living abroad. Thanks for coming in.

Iliana de la Vega Thank you Mando for having me.

Mando Rayo It’s so great to see It’s been a little bit since we’ve seen each other in real person in real life.

Iliana de la Vega Yeah, I know, I know. Thank you for having me here today.

Mando Rayo Yeah. Yeah.

Iliana de la Vega It’s a pleasure and an honor.

Mando Rayo Tell me, how did you get started in the culinary world?

Iliana de la Vega I like to cook when I was little and my mom let me cook and I learn from her a lot of things. I love to go to markets with her and, you know, buy things and cook some things. And then eventually I was just, you know, like, like to cook. I was not allowed to go to culinary school because it was not in fashion. I mean, it was a different time. Yeah. So my mom was a chemist, so I was like, no, my daughter doesn’t want to be a cook. Eventually, I did teach like for six years in Mexico City, and then we moved to Oaxaca. We opened a restaurant just like craziness, you know, totally craziness, because we didn’t have any experience, never worked in a restaurant, anything. And we decided, my husband and I, to open a restaurant. So that’s a long, long story short. That’s it. So, yeah, we opened a restaurant.

Mando Rayo Yeah. [laughs] So. But did you get you got that your first experience in a kitchen from your, from your mom? Yeah. Even though she was like, okay we can learn.

Iliana de la Vega Yeah, but you can learn cooking at home, like with her or, you know, like making parties. I used to make a lot of, you know, cater parties for friends, you know, just an excuse to to get to work in the kitchen. Yeah. And eventually I got so crazy. Everybody says like, Oh, you cook so well and this and that. I was like, Yeah, sure. Let’s open a restaurant without thinking what it is behind our restaurant.

Mando Rayo Yeah, yeah, yeah. And obviously, you know, from your early beginnings, you opened up El Naranjo here in Austin.

Iliana de la Vega First in Oaxaca.

Mando Rayo First in Oaxaca, okay.

Iliana de la Vega Yes. And then we had a trailer for a couple of years here while I was still working at the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America and not the other CIA. And and eventually, I mean, I quit the job and move here. I mean, we had been living in Austin always since we moved to the States. And so we decided to open the restaurant first the trailer, then the restaurant. And then I quit my job and I started dedicated to to the restaurant, you know, solely.

Mando Rayo And how was El Naranjo received in the beginning? Being, being here in Texas, in central Texas, where there’s a lot of Tex-Mex.

Iliana de la Vega I mean, it has been an educational portion of it. You know, definitely like a lot of people is like, Oh, this is not Mexican. How can I explain you? This is Mexican. It’s not Tex-Mex, you know?

Mando Rayo You know, you’re from Mexico City, [in unison] Oaxaca.

Iliana de la Vega Yeah, so I know what is Mexican food. And I believe, like Tex Mex is another regional Mexican cooking. You know, to me, that is what it is. So, yeah, if I’m in Yucatan, the food from Oaxaca is completely different. Yeah. So the same with, you know, and I have had that situation in Mexico, you know, cooking in Oaxaca. And people from other parts of Mexico come in. And this is not the picadillo I’m used to. And this is not how I like to you, you know, like my mom used to cook like. Like, okay, that’s fine. I mean, it’s another region. Sure. So but it’s, you know, like, this is Mexican and then is Tex-Mex as well, which everything, you know, we can we can live together, right?

Mando Rayo Yeah, yeah, yeah, right. Yeah. We can mix and match.

Iliana de la Vega Yeah. And I could change, you know, I guess, you know, the beginning, it was a little more difficult. Still, there is some people that, you know, don’t appreciate what I do, or they find it so strange for them. Yeah, but many people, you know, they, they don’t know what it is, but then try it and it’s like, oh, I like it. So yeah, yeah, I just to give it a try, if you don’t like it, try again and if you definitely don’t like it. Okay, don’t come back.

Mando Rayo But you know who does like it?  James Beard Foundation.

Iliana de la Vega Oh definitely. They like it. [both laugh] That’s a good thing.

Mando Rayo Yeah, but you’ve been honored, you’ve been a nominee and you won Best Chef as well. Tell us about, like, maybe the beginning of like the first time you got nominated. How did that feel?

Iliana de la Vega Okay, that was 2019, I believe. And it was James because Southwest because Texas didn’t have a category on its own. And it was like, shocking is like, okay, who came? Who did? I mean, I had no idea how that worked, but it was fun. And a lot of people, you know, like, like the idea of that and is a big honor, obviously. Yeah. So I get like semifinalist a couple of times before and then we had our own category in 2022 for Texas, and it was shocking. I mean.

Mando Rayo You got Best Chef in Texas, right?

Iliana de la Vega So first a final, the semifinals. Then you get to the finalists and then it’s like, oh, let’s go. We’re not going to get it. But okay, let’s go to Chicago to spend a weekend over there. I wouldn’t know the city. I have been there, but just for work. So I didn’t get it in to see anything. So let’s go and have a fun weekend. So, yeah, we went. Of course, I bought a beautiful dress. So all those things, we were seated there and it was like, Oh my goodness, I didn’t believe it. Honestly, right now it’s a little bit more clear. What is the process? I mean, there is more information in the page and everything. Yeah, how you get selected. And I guess this whole trajectory, you know, like we have been consistent in what we do. And I guess that is one thing that, that they appreciated. We serve traditional Mexican food is not like we make towers or, you know, like tweezers. Something that was simple, you know what we do. But it’s I think it’s very good.

Mando Rayo You didn’t get those tweezers from the CIA?

Iliana de la Vega Not really. Not really. Yes. Right.

Mando Rayo So what is the process? Because I feel like sometimes when people get nominated, it’s just a surprise. And you don’t know.

Iliana de la Vega Well, you don’t know anyway. That is something that you don’t know, that you can nominate anyone. And then, you know, if you get enough votes, then it seems you got to, you know, like semifinalist and then it narrows and they get, you know, some judges to go and check you out and then you go to the finalist and then some other judges again. So it’s like getting getting narrower and narrower than the scope.

Mando Rayo Okay.

Iliana de la Vega I have been ask, for example, is “What is the dish that they liked?” Is like, no, it’s not. It’s not a dish. It is the whole thing, the whole experience as a restaurant, as a chef, what you have accomplished as a chef. That I am. And I am not you know, I got before I got the nomination on my own, you know, by working in a kitchen without any experience, actually.

Mando Rayo But, yeah. No, no, You have the experience.

Iliana de la Vega I do. I do. I mean, but at the beginning, I had no idea what I was. I was like, I was like, super crazy and just to get into this business. But yeah, I love it.

Mando Rayo Well, I do feel there’s been a lot of Latino chefs and Mexicanos that have been doing this for years. But now there’s this idea of like, Hey, we’re recognizing people from the culture that are about the culture, right? So what does that mean for you?

Iliana de la Vega I mean, I feel very proud because in a way, when we moved to the States who was not something that we dream of, it was just necessity out of necessity that we moved to the states. And it’s like, okay, I mean, I lost my restaurant in Oaxaca. I lost my life there for political reasons in the region. And so it was like, okay, I will dedicate myself to do this. You know, that I was already doing it, but like, teach what it is. Mexican cooking. Yeah. So to be recognized, it feels good. It feels good. You know, like I’m grateful for, you know, for the United States, for the life I got here. But I. I mean, I feel super Mexicana still. I think that, you know, I can be proud of something that we we are as a country.

Mando Rayo Yeah. Like I mentioned, there’s now a lot of more Latinos carrying their own trucks, starting their own restaurant. Right. What advice would you give them as they’re opening up their businesses or even thinking about, Oh, maybe one day I’ll get recognized?

Iliana de la Vega Oh, my goodness. That is a tough one. Is like if you get into the culinary school and you think, Oh, I want to have my own show, sure you will. No, no, no. Just work hard and, you know, believe in something. And if you believe in that and follow your your dreams in a way, then you you will be able to make it, if not recognized like a, you know, with prices and things. And these are we all feel very proud of what you have done. But if you are recognize, first of all, your community, I think that is super important and maybe as important or more. Of course, it feels good to get that recognition. I’m not saying none, but you cannot be just hoping to get awards. You don’t work for those awards. You have to work for that every day. Your customer being happy, finish a plate, tell you something that this is the best thing I ever tried. Those kind of things is what will be the rewards for you. Hmm. The other thing isn’t the cherry for the cake. Otherwise. I mean, you cannot be like, are working for getting an award because if you don’t get it, you will be frustrated and just do the best you can. And I would say that’s my advice. You know, work every day for getting what you like and what you feel proud of. And then…

Mando Rayo Yeah.

Iliana de la Vega That’s it.

Mando Rayo The rest will come.

Iliana de la Vega The rest will come..

Mando Rayo Yeah, yeah. I’ve been to Naranjo, I enjoy it. And so somebody that maybe is new to your style of traditional Mexican cooking. What dishes would you recommend they try?

Iliana de la Vega Well, first of all, one of the things that make me more proud is we were, I think, the first restaurant in Austin and maybe in some in Texas as well that need our tortilla. So we start from, you know, bringing the corn, cooking the corn, grinding the corn in-house and make the tortillas by hand. So you had to try the tortillas or one way or another, the masa, you know, it could be in a empanada, it could be in a sope. Somehow you had to try it with corn. And then secondly, I think the most important they that we have and took like, it took like a couple of years for me to decide to put it on the menu because I know there was no way back Is the mole negro. The black mole from Oaxaca takes three days to make it, and we really make it, you know, with much care and everything. So it’s. Yeah, it really takes three days. Yeah. I swear to God, you can come any time, and we’ll see. I won’t give you the recipe, but you can come and watch.

Mando Rayo I will come and taste it.

Iliana de la Vega Yeah.

Mando Rayo You don’t have to force me.

Iliana de la Vega Yeah. It’ll be lovely. Any time.

Mando Rayo Well, thank you again, Iliana. I really appreciate you coming into the studio.

Iliana de la Vega Thank you. It was an honor. Pleasure.

Mando Rayo [music] As you can see, receiving awards and especially recognition from prestigious entities like the James Beard Foundation can have lasting impacts on Latinx chefs, businesses and even on the overall culture of the Texas establishment. We hope that if you are a budding chef in the making professional cocinero, or even if you’re many years into your craft, that today’s episode made you feel like sí, se puede. Special thanks to our guests, Mariela Camacho of Comadre Panadería in Austin and Emmanuel Chavez of Tatemó in Houston, and Iliana de la Vega of El Naranja in Austin, Texas. Shout outs to more Texas-based Latino institutions recognized by the James Beard Foundation: Joe’s Bakery and Coffee Shop, who won one of America’s classic restaurants, 2023 Emerging chef nominee our homegirl Victoria Elizondo from Cochinita and Co. from Houston, Texas, and everyone’s favorite Burnt Bean Co., Ernest Servantes, who was a semifinalist in the Best Chef Texas category. This has been the Tacos of Texas podcast, developed and produced by Identity Productions. If you enjoyed today’s episode and are craving more taco content, go to our website at w-w-w dot identity dot productions or follow us on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and YouTube at Identity Productions and United Tacos of America. This is your host, Mando, also a James Beard nominee, Rayo. Vamos a los tacos! In the next próximo Tacos of Texas traditional barbacoa and beyond, we head to La Pulga, a.k.a. 812 outdoor market to grab barbacoa by the pound and then get a more modern take on barbacoa from La Santa Barbara in Austin, Texas.

Outro The Tacos of Texas podcast is presented by Identity Productions in partnership with KUT and KUTX Studios. Our host and producer is Mando Rayo. Our audio is mixed by Nicholas Worthen and Ever Calderon. Our story producer is me, Sharon Arteaga, and our creative producer is Dennis Burnett. Music was created by Peligrosa in Austin, Texas, and King Benny Productions, located in the Quinto barrio of Houston.

This transcript was transcribed by AI, and lightly edited by a human. Accuracy may vary. This text may be revised in the future.


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