In a world where chefs have become celebrities, disconnected from the diners they originally set out to create for, few remain who appear genuinely devoted to their local communities.
Eduardo Garcia is one of these chefs and arguably Mexico’s most beloved, for every decision he makes, from where he sources his ingredients and restaurant décor to the staff he hires in the kitchen, demonstrates his wholehearted commitment to supporting locals and preserving the environment. As the featured Mexico City chef in almost every major cooking show, with numerous award titles, nine partnerships around the world, and an empire of restaurants in a country marked by a strict class structure, you would never guess that Garcia came from modest beginnings.
Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, Garcia spent his youth growing up in the United States. As part of a family of migrant workers, he started working in the fields at the age of five and never completed formal education. By sixteen he was working as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Atlanta and it was then that he began his ascent to culinary stardom. Garcia developed refined French cooking techniques at Atlanta restaurant Brasserie Le Coze under Eric Ripert; the owner of acclaimed Le Bernardin in New York City, where Garcia would eventually move and meet famed Mexican chef Enrique Olvera. After two deportations to Mexico from the United States, in 2007 Garcia joined Olvera at Pujol, where he would work for the next three years. One year later, he would open his first restaurant Maximo Bistrot, with his wife Gabriela Lopez Crus.
Titled one of the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America in 2017, the light-filled space on a quiet, tree-lined street in Colonia Roma has become a favorite amongst locals, tourists, and celebrities alike. So treasured that when the city’s inspectors shut down the restaurant in 2013 after the daughter of Mexico’s Federal Prosecutor was unable to get a table, local patrons launched a social media campaign that led to its reopening and a formal corruption investigation. In a city rampant with corruption, one cannot help but question if every chef would receive the same kind of local support. All it takes is a closer look at the design features of Maximo Bistrot and suddenly Garcia’s popularity makes complete sense. Deeply loyal to local production, almost every element of Maximo Bistrot’s inviting interior speaks to Garcia’s admiration for Mexico. Traditional tiles are made of Mexican lava stone. Dishes were made in a local third-generation shop and the 1960s light fixtures have been sourced from a nearby vintage dealer. The charming checkered napkins and curtains were hand-woven on small looms in Oaxaca and almost every other decoration is fair trade. The real masterpiece of Mexican artistry however, is the “Tree of Life”; a wall display intimately lit with market candles created by a local young artist.
It is no wonder that a table at Maximo Bistrot has become something worth stirring controversy over given the French-inspired, daily-changing menu that is executed with perfection. From a small, bustling kitchen, internationally-influenced Mexican dishes are calmly presented with beautiful colors and pristine form. There is a bright pink display of roasted beets with a rich, creamy yogurt, topped with fresh mustard greens and macadamia nuts for texture. What follows is an equally immaculate plate of kampachi, tuna and horse mackerel. The delicate cuts of fish are given complexity when paired with avocado and kimchi, and drizzled with white soy. While Garcia’s creations stand out for their innovative interpretations of Mexican cuisine, what sets them apart is the quality of his ingredients, none of which have travelled over 24 hours from their place of origin and two thirds of which are sourced from local farms.
Perhaps it was Garcia’s early days spent in the fields where he cultivated a profound respect for the bounty of the earth, an ethos that he exhibits in all of his ventures. Garcia not only appreciates that food tastes better when ingredients are fresh, but he recognizes the positive impact that supporting local farmers can have on both the economy and environment. There is no better example of this than Garcia’s involvement with Yolcan; an organization that connects local farmers in the fertile Xochimilco region of Mexico City to consumers in an effort to preserve Chinampa farming techniques and the environment. Xochimilco has historically been home to many farmers who developed distinct agricultural techniques based on the unique attributes of their land. With the rapid growth of Mexico City’s informal sector however, many farmers abandoned their farms in hopes of obtaining high-paying jobs, threatening the preservation of Xochimilco and its customs. Fortunately, with Mexico City’s culinary industry now celebrating local Mexican ingredients and cooking traditions, there has been an increased effort to support the farmers of Xochimilco and conserve their fertile land. Subsequently, many of the city’s top chefs, including Garcia and Olvera, source their produce from Yolcan farms.
Not only is sustainability of both Mexico’s heritage and ecosystems a priority for Garcia, so too is accessibility. While Maximo Bistrot, along with Garcia’s other highly-esteemed restaurant Havre 77, are seen as fine-dining establishments, the chef believes that high-quality food should not be overly expensive. To bridge this gap, Garcia created Lalo! in 2014, a casual café across the street from Maximo Bistrot that offers his dishes at a lower price. But the meaning of ‘accessibility’ runs even deeper for Garcia, perhaps due to his own career path in which he had to overcome many barriers to reach his current level of success. Garcia recognizes that providing a step-up in Mexico’s competitive culinary industry can go a long way for the economically-disadvantaged. By partnering with the non-profit organization Gastromotiva, which provides culinary training to the socially excluded and places them in the city’s most competitive kitchens, Garcia has hired many locals who otherwise might not be able to pursue their culinary dreams.
Garcia’s efforts to help others break the class divide do not stop there. Inspired by his own experience with deportation, in his spare time he supports migrant returnees at HELLO CODE, an organization that teaches them how to code. Clearly, this chef is as much devoted to revolutionizing Mexican cuisine as he is to overcoming the social, economic and environmental issues his country faces today. Rather than get lost in chef celebrity stardom and wrapped up in his image, he remains grounded and instead uses his power to make the world a better place. Garcia’s ability to overcome challenges and his consistent demonstration of acting with intention is setting the standard of what a modern chef should look like, not only for other Mexican chefs but for aspiring entrepreneurs around the world.
We caught up with the inspirational chef and humanitarian to find out more about his early cooking days, the inspirations behind Maximo Bistrot and his most cherished culinary experiences in Mexico City.
How did you first get into cooking?
I became a cook out of a necessity. My family and I were migrant workers in the US and we stopped migrating in 1991 when I looked for a normal job to pay the bills. I started in a restaurant in Atlanta called Georgia Grill where I became a line cook after 6 months of working as a dishwasher.
How has your childhood upbringing in the U.S. shaped your understanding of and relationship to Mexican cuisine?
Even though I lived in the US and wasn’t around Mexican cuisine a lot, my mom always cooked traditional Mexican at home with a lack of a few Mexican ingredients, yet she always managed to bring the flavors of Mexican cuisine together. I always knew that the culture of food in Mexico was very strong so I kept that in mind.
What, or who, inspired you to create Maximo Bistrot?
After I turned 21, I decided that I really wanted to become a chef. I always had the dream of owning my own restaurant. When I came to Mexico in 2007, I saw the opportunity because at the time there weren’t many good restaurants in the city. I got the inspiration from working in the fields as a young kid and making very simple yet delicious food.
What influenced your design choices for the restaurant interior? And in the design process, why was working with local artisans important to you?
One of the most important aspects of our restaurant is the design. We always wanted to keep it very simple and we found the right person to do it. Our designer Charles De Lisle from San Francisco had the same vision as us, using local artisans and maintaining very clean Mexican architecture.
Why did you decide to offer a menu that changes daily?
I change the menu every day because the ingredients that we use are very limited. We source only seasonal ingredients and most importantly, we do not use any endangered species in our restaurant and/or any animal product that has been modified or that has been fed hormones. All of this means very limited quality products, and this is what causes our menu to change daily.
Maximo Bistrot prioritizes fresh local ingredients. With such an abundance of local food suppliers in and around Mexico City, how do you choose which farms and markets you source from?
Even though there are lots of people producing, we have to be careful of who we choose from. It’s very easy to say that ingredients are organic, yet there’s a lot of growers who don’t follow strict organic guidelines. In this aspect, we’re very selective and visit each grower personally to make sure they are doing things right. During the rainy season, we use a lot of wild ingredients such as wild mushrooms and herbs.
You started as a dishwasher in Atlanta and are now a highly-acclaimed chef. How has working your way up the restaurant food chain shaped the way you run your businesses?
Not only did I start as a dishwasher, I never received a formal education. This makes it hard for me in the administrative part of the business. My love for food is what keeps me motivated. The administrative part is a job that my wife Gabriela does very well.
You’ve proven that restaurants can provide an opportunity for those who may not have the means to access a high-quality, culinary education. What advice do you have for aspiring chefs who may lack some of the privileges of their more fortunate peers?
One of the hardest parts of the business is committed people. I realize that most people, especially in this country, who want a business like Maximo may not have the resources to start one. From my experience, I’ve proven that it can be done. All you need is to be devoted, to truly love what you do and to be committed and disciplined.
What are the must-try traditional Mexican dishes you would recommend for a first-time visitor to Mexico City?
Mexican cuisine is designed for hard days of labor. There’s a lot of stews (guisados) involved and one of my favorites is bistec in pasilla which is thinly sliced steak that’s been stewed in chile pasilla salsa. Tacos, tamales and tortas are also must-try’s if it’s your first-time visiting Mexico.
What is your most treasured culinary experience in Mexico City?
What has been your most memorable moment in your career thus far?
The day I opened Maximo Bistrot.
Article and photography by Anna Haines