Atlanta Chef Mari Vega, owner of Chico food business, brings her South American roots and her love for Southern food to San Francisco.
Like many attracted to a life of cooking, Chef Maricela Vega came from a big food family. Her fondest memories growing up in Dalton, GA include her mother always having a fresh, home-cooked meal on the table at 4:00 pm, right as the kids rolled off the school buses into the house, and delicious breakfasts on the weekends. Mari would help with the meal prep. Grill-outs at the Red Clay Historic State Park were a regular occurrence. “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.” Everything centered around food. So, when Mari needed to take some time off from college, she fell easily into something familiar that had always made her happy: cooking.
Mari 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 showered me with her energy and the magic of her experiences and took me under her wing. She taught me what food could be and that there was another world outside of Atlanta. I also learned how to do mass production cooking, honing that important speed skill set and knocking out production lists. Then I was ready to refine.”
She did a super intensive nine-months of pasta production at 264. “I trained for a month and then I ran the program. I got creative and started using food scraps, like juiced carrots and beets, turning them into powder to add to the dough to make different colored and flavored pastas.” Finally, she moved on to Empire State South where she worked under Chef Joshua Hopkins and learned how to make sauces, work on techniques and disciplines. But it was the sourcing program that completely shifted 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.” Mari 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 needed to take to get full circle to her family roots: Using landrace ingredients.
“I never thought about importing the corn for my masa dough,” she explains. 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.
With intentions to create a brick-and-mortar store from production with a weekend counter space and special dinner series, a chef 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 history of foodways. “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.”
Chef Mari Vega will share her cuisine with diners throughout the month of October at Turntable at Lord Stanley.