Home » Passport Profile: Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza

Passport Profile: Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza

by Rich Rubin
Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza

Let’s have fun. Be empowered by what you do. It’s a sad, ugly world out there, but I will continue to speak truth, continue to grow as a chef and as a person, and continue to find places to find love

Being a chef is natural for her: “It’s in my DNA. We have eight hundred years—I should say, eight hundred documented years—of culinary excellence in the family. My ancestor was the pastry chef to the king of Spain.”

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s mission, through almost two decades of running Barrio Café (2814 N. 16th St., Phoenix AZ. Tel: 602-636- 0240. www.barriocafe.com), is to give Mexican cuisine the respect it deserves. For this descendant of a long line of Mexican cooks and bakers, food is culture, and treating both with the regard they merit is at the center of her message and always has been.

Being a chef is natural for her: “It’s in my DNA. We have eight hundred years—I should say, eight hundred documented years—of culinary excellence in the family. My ancestor was the pastry chef to the king of Spain.”

When I chat with Silvana, she’s in Mexico, in the middle of a trip that will take her all over Central America and the Caribbean. “As soon as we hang up, I’m heading to the airport, and going to San Miguel de Allende, where I’ll hang out with an author friend, then to the Mexican Caribbean, then I’m thinking of flying to Cuba, and then work my way to Belize, then Guatemala, then Oaxaca. Then I’ll meet up with an iguana vendor for a book I’m working on. Then I’ll work my way over to an area near Veracruz that is very centered around Afro-Mexican culture.”

That’s Silvana, never standing still for a moment in her quest to deepen her knowledge and appreciation of cultures. In Phoenix, Barrio Café remains as popular as ever (2022 will be its twentieth anniversary) and every time you approach the block of vibrant murals along “Calle 16,” which enliven an otherwise nondescript area of the city, you know you’re in for something special. What’s on offer here is amazing modern Mexican cuisine (“Comida Chingona,” to use the restaurant’s words), and that’s what Silvana’s been creating: her own distinctive Cocina de Autor.

The daughter of immigrants from the north of Mexico, she has experienced the country’s cuisine from two perspectives: that as the heir of a baking family (her family owned a bakery in California, so she was in the kitchen at an early age), and that of a trained chef traveling through Mexico. “I fell in love with Southern Mexico. My parents are northern Mexican, but my mother was a gourmet foodie and in her travels through different regions of Mexico, she always brought back interesting food. So I had an extensive culinary background just at home. When I began to travel down south, I came with the perspective of a gourmet, a trained chef. I was influenced by cooks that are artisanal, influenced by their techniques. Mole, for instance, goes back 10,000 years in the region of Oaxaca, and they’re still elaborating mole after mole after mole. The south is where they’re ingredient-rich, things that are a little difficult to find here in the States.”

She notes with pleasure, though, that the market is changing: “Now I can even get fresh huitlacoche flown in!” That hasn’t always been the case. She remembers trying to order ingredients from a supplier and being confronted with a bunch of second rate products. “There’s discrimination in food. Even the vendors didn’t understand, they were bringing me cheap ingredients. Nineteen years ago, when I was starting out, the suppliers would ask where you’re located, what type of food you’re serving, questions like that. I didn’t fail to say I’m a chef, I’m sure of that. When they found out it was Mexican food, they were offering me cheap cheese and things like ‘pulp meat.’ I don’t even know what `pulp meat’ is! I was like, ‘if you’re gonna disrespect me like that, get the hell out and don’t even bother coming back. Do you have the impression that Mexican restaurants only sell yellow cheese?’ The salespeople assigned to me just made assumptions about a Mexican restaurant.”

Barrio Cafe Mural | Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza

Barrio Café Mural
Photo: Rich Rubin

The stereotypes were compounded by her being out and a woman, not exactly a familiar sight among chefs in those days. “It wasn’t common to see female chefs that were strong and in leadership capacities. And it was even less common to see a chef respecting Mexican food, taking it seriously. It was a big deal twenty years ago,” she continues, “to have a female, not only a female but a lesbian.” She notes that at the beginning of her career all the media could talk about was her appearance, her buzzed hair, her sexuality. “Nowadays, nobody’s gonna pay any attention that she’s bald, a lesbian, and has a big mouth. I no longer hear people saying ‘there goes a dyke,’ now I hear ‘there SHE goes!’ As my platform has grown, so has my message. The trajectory of my message is even more proven. It’s been proven that everything I’ve been saying to the public for twenty years is absolutely true.”

That truth? “Discrimination and marginalizing,” which, for a chef, begins with her cuisine. “Everything has to do with the food and erroneous perceptions. The perception of Mexican food that Americans have is erroneous. It has nothing to do with that. Melted cheese on top of red sauce on top of everything else, that’s not what Mexican cuisine is. I don’t want some cheap-ass Mexican place. If you want a cheap car, don’t go to a Cadillac or BMW dealer! I applaud everything that’s giving life and pride to us. We have resources that have not yet been tapped into. If you’re a chef, stop selling tacos and go further.”

Whether it’s in culinary or societal terms (and the two are not, after all, unrelated), Silvana has fought this kind of bigotry her whole life. “I will accept nothing less than full respect,” she declares. “I refuse to be treated like a second- class citizen, as a queer, as a woman, and most of all, as a Mexican. It starts somewhere, and for me it starts here. It’s about being out and open—it’s so ugly and dark and scary in the closet—and sometimes I sound a little angry, and maybe I am, maybe I’m not. At this point I’ve pretty much conquered it. I’ve done it all in the name of honoring my culture. I found the keys to the kingdom in my culture. My purpose in life is to empower the next generation.”

“There’s a saying from Mexico, In the Spanish language,” she continues, ‘They want our tacos but they don’t want our people.’ We’ve known it for years. Being a culture warrior, I’ll stand up to that. The people who make money off Mexican food, not being part of the culture itself, have changed their tune. Now the culture vultures have discovered these fancy tacos, and now they’re exploiting that. It’s exactly the same thing in a different outfit. I take pleasure in the fact that I’m not someone who’s exploiting the culture, I’m exposing the culture.”

Her outspokenness has brought her hate (and threats) from the bigots, but she remains undeterred: “All the nasty messages—that’s just fuel for my fire.” More important are the numbers of people she’s reached, whose lives she has touched with her advocacy. “For everyone that rears their ugly head, there are countless people who are applauding me and embracing me and locking arms. My purpose is to serve my community. Phoenix. Arizona. The brown community. The queer community. All people. I’m just a regular folk who loves people, with a big heart.”

As for the others? She doesn’t hesitate for a second. “I shall not be oppressed, not another second. My oppressors need to move out of the way because I’ll steamroll right over them.” She’s been an inspiration to many people, and that’s important to her. Including her nephews who have worked with her (one remains at Barrio Café, while one is in Mexico studying native foods), to the many strangers whose lives she has touched. “I’m a sad, scared little queer person and you gave me the fortitude to go further.’ ‘I’m Mexican and I’m trying to start a taco place, and you taught me not to give up.’ Stuff like that, that’s why I do it. Let’s have fun. Be empowered by what you do. It’s a sad, ugly world out there, but I will continue to speak truth, continue to grow as a chef and as a person, and continue to find places to find love.”

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