MEXICO CITY — As bad hombre tales go, Eduardo García’s is classic. A border-crossing Mexican immigrant, he moved around the United States through the better part a decade, harvesting the produce that most of us take for granted throughout what might be thought of as a stolen childhood. Starting at age 5, the unschooled Mr. García embarked on a journey that drew on native intelligence, natural gift and a willingness to take on backbreaking work to make something of himself — in his case, a chef.
Like many of the immigrants keeping American farming alive and restaurant kitchens humming, his true citizenship was in a shadow economy. And like so many young men with more ambition than sense, he made mistakes that would send him first to jail and eventually home as a deportee to a country he knew less well than the one in which he was raised.
As fate would have it, it was at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Mexico and later at an establishment of his own that Mr. García transformed himself into a superstar of a thriving food scene. In less than a decade at the celebrated Pujol and later at Máximo Bistrot, the restaurant he operates with his wife, Gabriela, in a corner of the Colonia Roma section of this thronging capital, Mr. García has garnered awards and plaudits for the bright clarity of the flavors his kitchen conjures and the subtly layered elegance of his efforts fusing classic French technique with traditional Mexican preparations and ingredients.
On a recent springlike morning before Máximo Bistrot opened for lunch, Mr. García, known as Lalo, sat with a reporter to talk about his complicated journey from there to here:
“We started Máximo Bistrot in 2011 with four employees. The idea was to keep things small. But then I noticed, after a while, that employees were building homes. A lot of them were Mexicans who had migrated to the United States and then sent money back home to construct houses. With the wages we paid, they could stay in Mexico and earn enough to have a good life. So we decided finally it was a good idea to grow the business and employ as many people as possible, because in Mexico a lot of people’s pockets get bigger and bigger, but never the little guy.
“We now have three restaurants in the city, Máximo Bistrot, Lalo! and Havre 77. Over all, the cuisine is French-Mexican. We also have 130 employees with six partnerships in Mexico, two in London and one in Dubai.
“The thing is, I’m not ashamed to say it, but I’m a convicted felon in the United States: deported two times, in 2000 and 2007. My entire family still lives there and I love the country — it gave me everything I have — but I’m banned from going there now.
“My family was all migrant workers, and I grew up in the fields. I started at the age of 5. I never went to school. My parents were illiterate and I’m illiterate, too. I can read and write a little, but my grammar is horrible.
“In the beginning of the season, in the fall, we used to pick oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit in Florida. Then we would go to Georgia to plant Vidalia onions. From there we moved on to Michigan to pick apples, blueberries and plums. After that, it was Pennsylvania to pick mushrooms at night: Mushrooms only come out at night. Then we’d go to Ohio to pick cucumbers for pickling and back to Georgia to harvest the onions we’d planted. I still have scars from picking on all the fingers of both hands.
“I stopped that work when I turned 14. We’d been going up and going down the country and always through Atlanta until one year, in 1991, we stopped to visit an aunt there and my father found a job at a country club cutting grass. So we decided to stay for a while. I got a job washing dishes at the Georgia Grille on Peachtree Road. Hard physical work has always been my life. My cooks in the kitchen here at Máximo Bistrot are a little afraid of me, I think. When I arrive in the early morning, they panic. They always think they haven’t done enough because I’m here 18 hours a day every day.
“Within six months of getting that dishwasher job, I was promoted to the salad station. I worked in those days with illegal documents. I had a Social Security number, but it was a fake because I was actually too young to work legally.
“A guy above me at the Georgia Grille was from Puerto Rico. He watched how I learned and he said, ‘You’re very talented.’ Whatever task anybody gave me, I picked it up right away. My father had always taught me to be better than anyone else, so already, by the age of 10, I was making the same money as an adult.
“When you pick tomatoes, you pick from 7 to 11 in the morning and that’s it. After that, the sun is too hot and you don’t mess with the plants. For every bucket you turn in, you get a chip to redeem for cash. It could be 50 cents and it could be $1, depending on how good the crop was. Even as a kid, I was really into getting more chips than anyone. It was my version of a video game.
“The Puerto Rican guy went on to work as a butcher in Brasserie Le Coze, a restaurant Eric Ripert [the chef and an owner of Le Bernardin] was opening. He said I should try for a job there. After months of yes, no, yes, I got hired and it was the best job I ever had. They promoted me pretty quickly to garde-manger and suddenly I was making, like, 200 to 300 salads or terrines or duck confit, and it was like, ‘Wow, this is stuff I didn’t even know existed.
“My vocation and my work really began in the United States, which is why I love it just as much as I love Mexico. I even loved working in the fields, though my father died of gastrointestinal cancer that most likely came from being around so many pesticides. In the Mexican generation my father was from, he didn’t want us to follow his path. When I was little, he looked at us and said, ‘This is not good, little kids working like adults.’ But, unfortunately, they didn’t have a way to educate us, so I don’t hold him to blame.
“Pretty soon I was promoted again to chef de partie. I was making more than my father, whose life had been so hard, working so many years in the sun that he looked like 60 at 45. Even so, for me it was never about, ‘I’m going to become a chef.’ It was none of that. I was just working at something I loved.
“I always say the best and worst thing for us Mexicans was Nafta. We became literally accustomed to American ways. We forgot how to be Mexican. Now that is changing. Ten or 15 years ago, a Mexican would never tell you he had his ancestors’ indigenous blood in his body. Now, because of regionalism in food and music and art, everybody suddenly has a grandmother in Oaxaca. Sometimes, still, we’re ashamed we’re from Mexico.
“I wanted eventually to become a sous chef, so I took another kitchen job, which paid $29,000 a year, as a cook at a restaurant in Alpharetta, Ga. My father was very ill and I needed the money. It was there that I began to wonder, ‘How else do I learn to be a real chef?’ And that was when I really began to think about cooking seriously, constantly studying Charlie Palmer or Charlie Trotter and what they were doing. I studied and I mimicked what they had done and realized that most cookbooks are not ever accurate. So then I started to experiment. My training for this life is different from chefs who went to culinary schools. My entire education took place in kitchens.
“After six months, the owners of that restaurant said, ‘Now we can make you a sous chef.’ Unfortunately for me, as well as I was doing, I met some bad hombres along the way. My life started to go sideways. I began to sell drugs for the dishwashers. I never want to run from this, but it is true that all through my working life I had always given my father any money I made; he was my bank. Suddenly I realized then that I didn’t need to ask him for money. I could just make money on the side.
“I never got caught selling drugs, and to this day I can say I never tasted what I was selling. But what got me in trouble was when a cousin of mine asked me to drive him and a friend to a liquor store they were going to rob. I knew this. It was a moment in life. We got away, but I told myself I needed to face the consequences, so I turned myself in. I was charged with aggravated assault, convicted and spent one year in county jail and three years in maximum security prison in South Georgia. Immigration put a hold on me and transferred me to one of the hardest jails in the system, where I spent three years making auto tags. Then, at the end of 2000, I came to Mexico, deported for the first time.
“I was only back in Mexico for two weeks when my mother called and gave me the news that my father was dying of cancer. It was a big risk, but I had to take a chance to try to see him in the United States before he died. So I bought fake Social Security documents and crossed a bridge at Nuevo Laredo like everybody else. I had a feeling in me that it would be all right. My father didn’t want to have an operation or chemo, so they told him he would live two weeks. In fact, he lived another six years and every one of those years that I stayed I felt I didn’t belong in the States. I had spent a lot of time in kitchens by then and applied for a job as a chef. I kind of told a lie in telling people I already was one.
“One day in 2007, immigration went to the restaurant and talked to the manager, who came to me crying and said, ‘They’re here for you.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, I knew this day was going to come.’ I was arrested again and spent four months in federal prison in South Georgia. I swore then I would never ever see the inside of a jail cell again. I was deported again and I really didn’t know what was next for me.
“I don’t hide from any of this, because I want people around me to know who I am. A lot of people have been through what I’ve been through. Yes, it is shameful to say, you’re a fraud, you’ve been deported, you’ve been in prison. But these are mistakes any human being can make. Reading about the deportations — the poor guy in Tijuana who just jumped off a bridge — I want to encourage Mexicans who are in the same situation to know they’ll be welcome to come back and be in their own country.
“From 2007 to 2011, I worked as chef de cuisine at Pujol, and then at the end of 2010, the beginning of 2011, with a loan from an uncle of mine, I opened Máximo Bistrot. The dream by then was not to become a well-known chef. It was to become a good chef. And, well, here we are.”
Source: The New York Times