A Target on Their Backs

Chicago’s Chef Jonathan Zaragoza makes classic Mexican cuisine no one can seemingly get enough of.

Seriously–everybody loves this guy. On top of being a 2018 Starchefs Rising Star and one of Plate Magazine’s 2018 Chefs to Watch, I’ve written about his work helming the kitchens of Birrieria Zaragoza and Masa Azul for several clients, and any time his name comes up in conversation it’s said in praise.

Zaragoza takes a balanced approach to social action, too; he has no problem calling out shortsighted journalists in defense of immigrant or first-gen cuisine, but also doesn’t let “the race card” excuse poor behavior. He works hard, and thinks one step ahead. And so when we chatted at the Starchefs Congress last fall, he let me know where his thoughts had been turning. Here’s a bit from that convo.

Jonathan Zaragoza on Next Generation of Mexican-American Cuisine

How do you feel about Mexican chefs and Mexican-American chefs being on “trend” in the food world right now, with some organizations even the doubling down with, “Okay, this is not a trend–finally giving certain cuisines and chefs their due is just the way it should be.” How are you feeling about that specific attention?

Nowadays, I’m a dime a dozen; there are so many first-generation American chefs with an ethnic background. Our parents opened up restaurants–not everybody, but in my case–because they wanted to put us through college and support us and all that stuff. And here I am, taking it and trying to bring it up to the next level or not mess it up, you know?! Just trying to do what I was taught. It’s amazing to see first-generation chefs my age continuing on the legacy of their parents. It’s tradition.

As first-generation chefs and chefs born in the States, I think it’s important to honor traditions whilst finding our way and blazing our path. But it’s important to look back at where we came from. Just because something’s traditional doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it… it’s just the way it’s been done for years. That’s when the innovation comes in.

I’m not saying that to be arrogant or anything; there’s a difference between artisanal and ancestral. But for me, this is all I’ve known–ancestral. Cooking is in my blood. And look at the panel here [at Starchefs Congress Eats, 2018]–look at how different they all are! That’s why New York City and Chicago have so many restaurants, and you can’t really go wrong anywhere.

Have your parents ever given you grief for being a chef?

No…. Originally, yeah. But I think they just wanted me to do it the right way.

What did “the right way” mean to them?

It was a hard pill to swallow when I told them I was dropping out of normal college. I dropped out of business school in the first year–nothing big. And then I went to culinary school and dropped out.

Ha! I’m thinking about what my parents would have done!

I dropped out of college three times! It was hard because I’m the oldest and they really wanted me to set the example. So I already knew that I had the pressure on. So it was more like, “OK, well, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go all out, and I’m going to work work work work work.” And that was the thing for me. Now, they see all the hard work working. But along the process, they’ve always been supportive.

What do you think we’ll see next with Mexican cuisine in the States?

This new generation of chefs is really hungry, and I think they’re really pushing the envelope. It’s like a fusion thing now, where they’re taking other techniques and applying them to Mexican food in an innovative way, using the same ingredients we’ve always used in a different technique. Technique is going to change in Mexican food. Flavors are always going to be there. The groundwork’s been laid for us as chefs. We just have to figure out what we want to do and do it our way. Technique is where people set themselves apart.

Anything else that’s been on your mind that you want to share?

I think, right now, Mexican cooks in the States have a target on their backs. Their jobs are more important than ever given the political climate that we’re in and how marginalized we are by the president. We have a responsibility to our people–to give them a safe place to go eat and remember home. That’s the biggest thing right now.

Food aside, this is a life thing. What my restaurant means to people in Chicago is they get to go there and eat a meal where they close their eyes and they’re back in La Barca, Jalisco. I think that’s the biggest thing for us right now. It’s much bigger than food, our job right now. That’s what it is.

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