Eduardo Garcia has a rags to riches story, from working illegally in a shadow economy to internationally acclaimed chef/restaurateur, so I decided to visit him in Mexico City and hear it firsthand.
Dinner at Maximo was amazing, then his wife Gabriela took me to meet Lalo, their breakfast/lunch diner that serves as a special events venue. As I arrived, he was doing what he loves, cooking, teaching and hosting dinner for a charity to benefit children’s education. He appreciates his success and shares by giving back to his community.
I was immediately struck by the level of passion he exhibited teaching. He was animated and obviously enjoying it as much as the student guests. When Gabriela signaled my arrival, he excused himself to join us.
Meeting Eduardo Garcia
I introduced myself and asked what it was like to work in the U.S., only to be deported, not once but twice. He was no less enthusiastic telling his story, words spilling quickly, unreservedly from his heart. At once humble and apologetic for his missteps but at the same time proud of his accomplishment in building a new, better life not just for himself and his family but for all his employees as well.
Eduardo said he entered the U.S. illegally with his family as a child and became a migrant worker. He traveled across the southeast for nine years until he found his first restaurant job in Atlanta, Georgia. Without any formal training, he learned to cook in the kitchen. Unfortunately, he also learned the dark side of restaurant culture and in his words, “I was the guy selling the drugs, not the one using them”. In 1997 he was an accomplice to a liquor store robbery. His conscience got the best of him and he turned himself in. He served three years in the penitentiary and was deported from the U.S. in 2000.
When I asked what it was like returning to Mexico, he said “life was hard”. He lived in the U.S. since he was a child and knew little of Mexico. He was there just weeks when he learned his father was terminally ill. If he wanted to see him alive he had to again enter the U.S. illegally and did.
He returned to the restaurant business, this time as a chef. In 2007 federal immigration, customs enforcement agents walked in while he was working. Caught again, he spent 4 months in a federal prison, was deported and permanently banned from the U.S.
In the Jungle
Back in Mexico, he found work with Enrique Olvera at Pujol, an internationally acclaimed restaurant. He quit in 2009 and went to the northern Mexican jungle to run a hostel. There, it was common for guests to leave books. He remembers reading one by Anthony Bourdain and another by a waiter that publicly exposed the harsh realities of the restaurant industry. It struck a chord and motivated him to return to Mexico City. He and Gabriela left the jungle and opened Maximo Bistrot in 2011, serving a fusion of French and Mexican cuisine.
Their initial success was temporary. Eduardo took offense at the way patrons treated his employees. He began kicking out diners that mistreated them by snapping their fingers and shouting or making derogatory remarks, until one day Gabriela refused preferential service to the wrong person. It was the daughter of a highly placed government official and her father closed them down. Through social media, both local and international culinary communities rallied behind them and put enough pressure on the government that they were allowed to reopen. The offending official was forced to resign by President Nieto himself. Eduardo said the incident changed the entire dining culture in Mexico City.
Then Anthony Bourdain featured him on Parts Unknown. His business has flourished since then and there is no looking back. Lalo now has three restaurants in Mexico City and one each in London and Dubai. He and his partners are ready to invest a huge sum in a new restaurant that according to him “will not be like anything else anyone has seen here”.
As we were preparing to leave, Eduardo told us he tries to use his story “to encourage people to believe in themselves”. His personality is infectious, his enthusiasm viral. I understand how he can make you believe.
And just one more thing…
During our conversation, we managed to find a shared path. For a short time, he lived and worked in my home town of Louisville, Kentucky. Read about my experience dining at Maximo Bistro on my Restaurants page. Maximo Bistrot – Mexico City