Mexico City-based journalist and audio producer Laura Tillman recently released The Migrant Chef: The Life and Times of Lalo García. The biography delves into the life and experiences of Chef Lalo García, whose migration across borders and pursuit of culinary excellence have left a lasting mark on the culinary world.
Tillman’s book begins with García growing up in rural Guanajuato Mexico. He leaves for the United States at 10 years old alongside his mother and brother to join his father as a migrant farm worker between Florida and Michigan. As a teenager, Garcia finds his way into the restaurant industry in Georgia, climbing the ranks from dishwasher to the kitchen line.
Tillman then relays Garcia’s journey as he experiences imprisonment and deportation. Unable to return to the U.S., Garcia returns to Mexico, where he finds a fusion of European culinary techniques combined with Indigenous flavors. Garcia opened his first restaurant, Máximo Bistrot in Mexico City, with the intention of highlighting the importance of local food and the power of food to bring people together.
Tillman and García first met in 2016—a time when anti-immigration sentiments were on the rise in the U.S.—when Tillman shared a meal with friends at Máximo Bistrot. García, wishing to offer hope and support to others facing deportation, was ready to share his story. And Tillman was looking to further understand the back of house in fine dining in Mexico City.
At our first meeting, “[Garcia] told me of his incredible journey from migrant farm worker to deportee to famed chef. It was obvious from that meeting that not only had a fascinating story to tell, but that he was an especially insightful subject,” Tillman tells Food Tank.
Tillman spent five years alongside García, learning about his story, spending time with his family, and observing the inner workings of his restaurant. Tillman pulls from these interactions to shape her narrative, while weaving in historical context to help readers understand the role migrant workers play in the American food system.
“We need to create a more equitable system which requires consumers to demand change,” Tillman tells Food Tank that she wants readers to understand. This is important, she continues, because “many workers in this industry are either undocumented, or are on work visas which, by their nature, discourage workers from speaking out.”
Tillman says “I started to see the preciousness with which we treat the food that goes into our bodies in a different light: why can’t we show the same concern, or even a shadow of that concern, to the people who harvest and prepare our food?”
In the book, García says he is a “simple cook who feeds people who are hungry.”
Tillman hopes readers take away that there is a need to reconsider the prices one is prepared to pay for products to create a more equitable world. “I hope that Lalo’s story makes those inequalities, and the imperative to do better, more immediate to readers.”
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Photo courtesy of Mallika Vora