'You'll lose our heart': Latino chefs talk new projects, dangers of losing indie eateries

Published in the Asheville Citizen-Times, July 8, 2020

Pachamama is the earth goddess revered by the Indigenous people of the Andes. 

She's the guiding spirit behind Pachamama5, a restaurant envisioned by Santiago Vargas, the Lima-born chef formerly of Out of the Blue food truck, and the Tampico, Mexico-born chef Ricardo Carrasco, of the former Polanco. 

The numeral 5 represents to the chefs the cardinal elements — earth, air, fire and water — and another, more ethereal element: soul. 

They invoked the latter when they combined their cultures through food, they said. 

"When we started to cook together, we had a passion," Vargas said. "We had a magic together."

They plan to open a tapas restaurant in what was once the Polanco space on Market Street, exploring what happens when you combine the rich flavors of Cuban, Colombian, Peruvian, Mexican and other Latin-American food traditions in one place. 

"It's not easy to find a Latin-American restaurant where you have a Peruvian chef, a Mexican chef, a Cuban lady," Carrasco said. "This kind of collaboration, that doesn't exist in the United States — it's not a fusion restaurant, but a lot of cultures, coming together."

"It's trying to discover Latin America in small dishes," Vargas said. "A cocktail bar and wine pairings, shots of tequila and Pisco."

The concept is there, but the timing is problematic, Carrasco said. "The problem is we tried to make this change exactly when the pandemic started."

You lose culture and you lose magic'

When COVID closed restaurants, the chefs quickly pivoted their concept to a feeding kitchen, selling family meals to those who could afford to buy Latin comfort dishes like Cuban slow-simmered Ropa Vieja.

Those who couldn't afford it ate anyway, thanks to donations from customers and the chefs, who fed hundred of people, including local musicians, first responders and the homeless. 

"There's a lot of need in the street," Carrasco said.

Though feeding people is still a priority, the chefs are now working on an innovative private-dining idea more suited to COVID-19.

They'll tailor a full-service menu to a single group, close the restaurant to everyone else, then serve as chefs, bartenders and servers in a highly personalized dining experience. 

Innovation is key to keeping the Pachamama5 dream afloat in a precarious time.

The pandemic has already begun to chip away at the diversity of Asheville's food culture, with the owners of Addissae Ethiopian Restaurant, Asheville's first and long-awaited Ethiopian restaurant, deciding in May to shutter their restaurant

The independent restaurant community in Asheville is a tight-knit one, and Carrasco said he talks to other local chefs who wonder if they'll ever reopen.

The loss of independent restaurants would cause a crucial tear in the cultural fabric of the city, he said. 

"We will lose exactly this — a Peruvian guy and a Mexican guy — and the flavors from our country," he said. "You're going to get Taco Bell, with chemicals and no passion. You lose passion, you lose culture and you lose magic."

"And you lose our heart," added Vargas. "We impact everyone. The whole community is affected."

Mexican food is not a monolith

Luis Martinez, a native Zapotec speaker and Indigenous Mexican American who first came to the United States in 2005 as a refugee, is the executive chef of the soon-to-open El Gallo AVL. 

El Gallo AVL will open in the former Table space in July. Like Table, which is moving to 18 N. Lexington Ave., El Gallo AVL is owned by Jacob and Alicia Sessoms.

With his cooking, Martinez wants to bring awareness to Indigenous Mexican communities and highlight the generational knowledge he carried with him to the United States.

More: Asheville's 10 best tacos, according to Taco Map AVL creator Luis Martinez

He also wants to defy the commonly held notion of Mexican food as a monolith of re-fried beans and meat.

Martinez, who grew up in Santa Catarina Loxicha in southwestern Mexico, saw tacos as a special occasion meal. 

"And I was pretty much a vegetarian growing up, because we didn't have a lot of money for meat," he said. "Meat was a luxury."

Luis Martinez is the executive chef of the upcoming Tacos El Gallo which will open in the former Table location downtown. Martinez grew up in southwest Mexico and plans to bring awareness of Indigenous Mexican communities through his cooking.  (Photo: ANGELI WRIGHT/ASHEVILLE CITIZEN TIMES)

You'll find that in dishes like Milanesa torta, which will use sweet potato in the place of the usual fried meat. 

You'll also see that in a focus on the deep cultural significance of corn, first domesticated in Mexico some 9,000 years ago.

More: Despite coronavirus shutdown, Asheville restaurants and bars forge ahead with construction

"We're honoring the corn and the culture and trying to bring a little awareness to people," Martinez said. "Not all corns are the same."

The restaurant will use blue Bolita corn, red corn and heirloom white cacahuazintle in tortillas, hominy, masa and desserts like corn panna cotta. 

"People forget how important corn is for the Indigenous community and how hard it has been to preserve the heirloom corns in Mexico and Central America," Martinez said. "This corn that you are eating has a lot of history and it has a lot of struggles, politically and also socially." 

Inspired by tradition, called to help

Martinez stops short of using the word "authentic," when describing his menu, created in collaboration with Jacob Sessoms, primarily because sourcing some traditional ingredients can be problematic.

But there's no doubt that the menu will show off some deep-rooted traditions, like the labor-intensive 22-ingredient Oaxacan Mole Chichilo to be served with rooster, or with the al pastor cooked on the trompo.

Martinez said his pastor's 5-chili marinade combines the flavors of Mexico City and Oaxaca in the marinade.

Martinez said he doesn't want to stop at putting the flavors of Indigenous Mexican people on the table. He wants to bring those people to the table as well.  

"We have to have a more active participation in our community," he said. "It's not just about selling stuff, it's about what we can do in order to bring some awareness in our communities."

Martinez, who studied fine arts at the Universidad Autonoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca and digital media arts at A-B Tech, helps nonprofits with graphic design because he feels privileged to be in a position to help. 

He also co-created the zine RAÍZ to help amplify and support immigrant and Latino communities.

The road here was rocky for Martinez, who fled his oft-violent hometown to find himself picking tomatoes in the fields on a California farm where he said workers lived "packed like rats."

Luis Martinez is the executive chef of the upcoming Tacos El Gallo which will open in the former Table location downtown. Martinez grew up in southwest Mexico and plans to bring awareness of Indigenous Mexican communities through his cooking.  (Photo: ANGELI WRIGHT/ASHEVILLE CITIZEN TIMES)

He began his chef career in Los Angeles, where he also worked in immigrant-supporting nonprofits, carrying that same work to Seattle, where he met his wife, a North Carolina native. The two moved to Asheville in 2012.  

Martinez became a United States citizen two years ago. 

"It was rough, but I worked hard and everything worked out really well," he said. "I mean, look at where I am right now."

He now occupies one of the top positions in restaurants where, particularly in Asheville, minorities often work the lowest-paid jobs.

He'll use that platform to bring an honest, non-homogenized representation of Latin-American culture to the table. 

"If we lose independent restaurants like the one we have, it's just going to contribute to the ignorance (of those) who already have something in their minds about us, but they don't really know us," Martinez said. "We lose us."

El Gallo AVL is at 48 College St. Visit tableasheville.com for more, including opening updates and menu. Tentative opening day is July 20. Keep an eye on social media for pop-ups.

Pachamama5 is at 10 North Market St. Visit www.pachamama5.com for more, or email pachamamacinco@gmail.com for private dining reservation information.


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