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Chef Maricela Vega, creator of the Atlanta pop-up Chico, has taken her Mexican roots and her love for Southern food to San Francisco.
Vega kicks off a month-long residency today, Oct. 5, as guest chef at Turntable at Lord Stanley, the Michelin-starred restaurant that showcases the cuisine of both world-renowned and up-and-coming chefs
With intentions to create a brick-and-mortar store for Chico with production space, weekend counter space, and special dinner series, Vega said the residency at Turntable was a perfect precursor. “I am always looking for opportunities to keep learning, and Turntable incorporates all those models I still need to learn more about.”
Mari spent about four weeks in the Bay Area in the spring of 2018 and is also struck by its rich food history. “This area has always been a source of inspiration, I learned so much about community building when I was last there. As a Latina, it is always great to get a chance to go to other cities and see other Mexican chefs perform, something I don’t have easy access to in Atlanta.”
Like many attracted to a life of cooking, Vega came from a big food family. Her fondest memories growing up in Dalton, GA includes her mother always having a fresh, home-cooked meal on the table at 4 p.m., right as the kids rolled off the school bus, and delicious breakfasts on the weekends. There were also family gatherings and grill-outs when she would visit family in Mexico
“My family in Mexico are farmers, and when we would visit them, it became an opportunity to share special meals for which they would butcher a specific pig or goat,” she said.
Vega cooked her way across Atlanta, giving credit to kitchen staff for her informal but crucial culinary training.
“I worked with some prep chefs who had worked under Kevin Gillespie in his early days and had super great training. They taught me French cooking techniques. I then worked with Chef Nimma Osman at Sun in my Belly who had just moved from New York and cooked at the likes of Craft and Daniel, places that I could only dream about eating in.”
She also earned how to do mass production cooking, honing that important speed skill set and knocking out production lists.
Vega did a super intensive nine-months of pasta production at 264, then she moved on to Empire State South where she worked under Chef Joshua Hopkins, and then as executive chef at the now-shuttered 8ARM.
She credits Hopkins with helping her completely shift the paradigm on how she would pursue cooking.
“Joshua helped me get an apprenticeship at an urban agro ecological farm. I spent my mornings farming and my afternoons setting up my station at the restaurant and breaking down some of the same vegetables I helped grow and harvest. It deepened my connection with my ancestral roots, my farming family, and it started me down the path to create Chico, my food business.”
Vegan began to sell tamales on Next Door to her neighbors, and as her business grew, she got into farmers markets and became a part of the community. There was still one more step she wanted to take to honor her family roots: Using landrace ingredients.
“I never thought about importing the corn for my masa dough,” she explained. But as she began to research Mexican food in the same way she had studied Italian regions to lend authenticity to the pasta she was making, she began to learn about landrace corn. “Landrace means the seeds have been saved in that family or village or little area of land for hundreds, even thousands, of years and is a part of that land.”
Unlike heirloom seeds that are likewise preserved and passed down but can be planted anywhere, landrace ingredients must be planted in the area it came from.
If you happen to be in San Francisco this month, be sure to drop by Turntable and send greetings to Vega from ATL.
Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist. More by Collin Kelley