A menu of memories of an undocumented chef


On the afternoon of this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade, Williamsburg was filled with the sound of salsa and the smell of rain, and Iván Garcia was in his restaurant’s kitchen, getting ready for dinner service. “I check all the equipment, like the temperature in the walk-in closet downstairs,” he said. “I test the flavors by saying, ‘It’s too spicy’ or ‘It needs more salt. “”

Garcia, who has a “Viva la vida!” tattoo on one forearm and wearing a silver ring in his left eyebrow, sat down at a long table in front of a burlap-lined wall and spread his hands apart. “My grandmother has a table for twenty people,” he says. “She is an extraordinary cook. She cooked every day, three meals a day. The Mesa Coyoacan restaurant is named after these tables and the Mexico City neighborhood where Garcia grew up. He opened it in 2009; a few years later, he opened Zona Rosa, a casual spot nearby, where he cooks in a silver trailer. “When I’m finished here, I move to Zona Rosa,” he said. “I try the mole, the salsa, the rice, the beans, I go back and forth. “

Garcia hasn’t been to Mexico since 2000, when, at the age of twenty-eight, he and a friend crossed the US border south of Phoenix. They reached New Jersey, where Garcia worked in a car wash, then in construction, then in a garment factory. The friend, discouraged, returned to Mexico. Garcia got a job as a dishwasher at a Scandinavian restaurant in Tribeca. “The chef was amazing, an amazing person,” he said. “He gave me the opportunity to enter the kitchen as a line cook. Soon Garcia was the chef of Barrio Chino on the Lower East Side. Her boyfriend, Gerardo Zabaleta, had followed her to New York, and they wanted to open a restaurant together. “But we had a little problem,” Garcia said. “We were undocumented.

Garcia and Zabaleta are still undocumented, and that obstacle permeates “I Carry You With Me,” a film about their lives, directed by Heidi Ewing, which opened in June. Garcia appears as himself; actor Armando Espitia portrays him as a young man. At the start of the film, the past and the present are mixed up: Garcia looks out of a subway window and Espitia walks in a dark field. “I had this dream again,” Espitia said softly, in a voiceover. “It’s so real. I am in Mexico. My house . . . And I realize that I can’t go back.

“Don’t ask me. I only look like an adult in the void of a summer camp.
Cartoon by Robert Leighton

If Garcia returned home, he could not return to the United States. Her son, who is twenty-eight years old and lives in Puebla, was six the last time they saw each other; although Garcia has video calls with his granddaughter, he has never met her. When his father died, he was unable to attend the funeral and is worried about his ninety-one-year-old grandmother. A few years ago, his mother managed to get a tourist visa to visit him in New York. “You know how much I cried,” he said. “When she arrived I saw her at the airport, saw her from a distance and thought, No, I can’t believe it.” It had been fifteen years.

During the pandemic, immigration status made Garcia and many other restaurant workers ineligible for unemployment benefits. At the same time, the cooks at Garcia had family members in Mexico losing their jobs, and remittances were more essential than ever. Mesa Coyoacan staff began preparing meals for nonprofits including Feed the Frontlines NYC, through which they sent four thousand meals to Elmhurst Hospital. “Nobody left. I have people who have been working here since day one, ”Garcia said. “But, like a lot of people in this country, we work very hard, we pay a lot of taxes, we provide jobs for Americans, for immigrants – and we are still undocumented, we are still without a Social Security Number.”

Cooking is Garcia’s only way to experience Mexico. “I miss my food,” he said, as the waiters bustled around him. “But I created a menu from all of my memories.” The mole he serves is his grandmother’s recipe, less spicy for gringos. Some dishes come from his mother’s hometown, Veracruz; others, from a trip he made in the 90s to the family home in Zabaleta, Chiapas. In the film, young Garcia courts Zabaleta with the Puebla specialty chili in nogada: stuffed poblano peppers topped with walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. As Garcia recounts, he learned to cook the dish in a convent, where the nuns charged him a few thousand pesos for the lesson. “It’s very, very complicated,” he said, of the recipe, smiling. “The poblano, we have to roast it, peel it and remove the seeds inside. But you better be careful, you can’t destroy the chili, because it has to be stuffed and look good. It fills each with chicken, pork, apples, peaches, toasted almonds and raisins. Nuts for the sauce should be peeled one by one. “In Mexico, it took me hours to peel them, ”Garcia said. “I remember seeing the nuns sitting, talking, peeling for hours. I was inspired by them. But here we are, like poumpoumpoumpoum-finished. “♦


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