Published October 15th, 2020 at 11:39 AM
These days, restaurateurs in Kansas City have to reimagine the way they whisk up and serve tasty dishes. Despite the pandemic, restaurant owners and chefs are determined to keep powering through.
Behind the chef’s table are people motivated to craft a plate that tells a story, pays homage to family or creates an experience. That’s what these eight chefs have in common. They also happen to be part of Kansas City’s growing Latinx community.
Nationwide, the Latinx population accounts for half of all U.S. growth between 2010 and 2019. Locally, roughly 10% of residents in Kansas City, Missouri, and almost 30% in Kansas City, Kansas, identify as Hispanic or Latinx.
So, Flatland sought to learn about Kansas City’s Latinx chefs and restaurant owners as we conclude Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month by asking them each to answer two questions.
What does being Latino/a/x or Hispanic mean to you? How does this translate over to the food you serve?
Interviews have been edited for clarity.
My Latino heritage is extremely important to me. It is part of the foundation of who I am, who I expect myself to be, and the standard that I hold myself to. With the understanding that, culturally, the things that I have to do — to honor my parents, my grandparents, my family — are the exact same things that I’m going to hold my children accountable for. To define the very essence of what it is that the last name that I have means. And that’s something that I take seriously, not only every single day, but every moment that I breathe. It means the world to me.
What better way to share the love in my heart, the love that my father had and my mother has, for this community and for our culture than just share the very core of who it is that makes us who we are, which is our food?
We don’t do anything that my grandma and grandfather didn’t make. And it is our family, our recipes. Some people want to say, ‘Oh, it’s Tex-Mex,’ or ‘It’s this and that.’ You know, everyone’s a food critic now. We as La familia Lopez, we define what it is that we choose to do, and serve to this beautiful and wonderful community. And that’s, that’s our culture. That’s — I don’t know if this is a word — our Latinoism. Mexican food, Italian food, Chinese food, all of these wonderful ethnic foods, they come from poverty, they come from necessity. It’s the things that we take for granted, right? Especially us now with our modern society and where we’re at, it’s almost as if it’s a sense of entitlement that we feel we deserve these certain things that were really luxuries for generations of Americans and Mexican Americans, like my grandmother and my grandfather. Ground beef was expensive. It was not easy to get. So what did they do? They had to make it last. So they used, you know, peas, and sliced up potatoes. My father, Manny, always told me, ‘When people choose to walk through our doorway, they’re making a very serious choice. They work extremely hard for their money. And they’re choosing to give that to us. And we have got to do our part.’ Especially right now, people want to feel some type of normalcy, they want to be comfortable. They want to have just a small moment of joy. And if the Manny’s crispy taco or the Manny’s pork burrito, or maybe their favorite server, smiling at them, or a Manny’s Margarita can give them that joy then that’s what we’re going to provide.
I don’t use Hispanic any longer because of how problematic it is, too many issues that I’d like people to consider. Being of Latinx origins means everything to me, even as I grew in this American society. As I grow, I’ve started to admire how rich in culture Latinx people are. It’s beautiful and it’s evolving, but I do want to make sure to keep some of those traditions learned throughout my years. The richness, the colors, the flavors, it’s been a true joy and honor for me.
It translates to my food because of experience. I didn’t dive into food knowing how to cook Mexican food, so I’ve only known how to eat it, not how to cook it. It’s a shame, but I also never dreamt of being a chef. I say this a lot in interviews, I only got to be a chef out of necessity. I’m grateful to have found another talent in my pocket, but this was not a dream of mine. I’m just trying to make something out of nothing. My food in general has been influenced by what I’ve eaten at home. A lot of what I do, it’s just naturally influenced, therefore spiced with flavors I know and love. I’ve recently started to learn and test more food with Mexican origins, as that’s probably my weakest in the kitchen. I’ve done food influenced by many countries, but I’ve now felt a calling to learn more about the food from my birth place.
Well, the American people don’t know — what is Latino? Latino is the people that come from Romania, Italy, Greek friends, and Spain. Latin means they come from the Latin language. We come from the Romance language. It is a pleasure (to be Latino) because the Latin language is more expressive. In English you have 58 verbs, in Spanish you have 586.
I love the kitchen. It (has been) my passion for the last 40 years. I’ve cooked in 30 countries around the world. In the U.S., the plates that we make in here are not original from the place, like the Mexican. You ask the Mexican owner why you put chips and salsa? Americans just like that. Before we had our restaurant, we cooked up to 17 countries’ food. Now, because of the pandemic we are cooking food from Mexico City mainly, the street food, because it’s easier to travel since many people are asking for (food) to go. Eat everything. Try everything.
Growing up my mother was intent on making sure that I knew my Hispanic heritage. My two brothers and I learned through my mom and dad’s lessons on food, culture and music. It all started in the kitchen where we spent many hours cooking together and hearing stories about my mom and dad migrating here from El Salvador, with very little to begin a life. They wanted us to know about hard work, and sacrifice to share with our children one day. We would often cook, talk and listen to music as a family. And of course there were many lessons on making our traditional specialty, pupusas.
In our restaurant we serve the same traditional foods that bring back those memories of home with my mom and dad. I hope to share and create memories here with families trying new foods. It was always a happy place being in the kitchen with my mom and dad and I want my customers to feel like family with us as well.
I grew up helping my mom sell food on the street in Villahermosa. I’m the youngest of seven siblings and my dad died when I was four years old. My mom raised seven kids on her own. With limited resources, she was able to feed all of us with hot meals, then sell some on the street to make a living. I started helping her when I was six years old and I remember all of the hard work she put into the food, from grinding corn to make masa, to carrying food on foot for miles to sell them. I believe that’s where my work ethic comes from and my love and passion translate to the food I serve at my restaurants. I love letting the beauty of my ingredients shine when it comes to seafood.
Growing up on the coast, I used to catch and eat shrimp by just squeezing lime on it. That’s why I serve a lot of ceviche, crudo, salpicon, etc. at my restaurants. As for drinks, you will see pretty large collections of Mezcal at my restaurants. Not only (does) Mezcal pair well with my food, but the labor that goes into distilling Mezcal is unbelievable. And I like to support these guys in Oaxaca that I had the pleasure of meeting by carrying their products. Veracruz-style Mexican seafood and Mezcal are not typical dining options in Kansas City, but I love to be able to introduce people to my culture through food and drinks.
I was born in Mexico, so I knew I was Mexican but I never understood what Latino meant or anything. We’re in America, (so) we’re Americans, but we’re also Mexican. We’re a mixture of everything. Me and my background, my parents, we’re Lebanese and French and Spanish and Native Mexican. We have some African in our blood because my great-great grandparents were from Cuba. Sometimes I still have trouble identifying myself as a Latino. Growing up here, I was never enough Mexican, never enough American. What helped with my cooking was wanting to know more about food, specifically about my own food, from Mexico. We aren’t just burritos and tacos. We’re more than that. So I started ordering cookbooks from Mexico, pre-Hispanic cuisine, from different regions, just trying to understand more of that. When people see a Latino a lot of times there’s a stereotype … I’m not like that. I don’t really dance salsa, I don’t really eat Latin food all the time. I don’t listen to just Latin music. I had a conversation with my friend the other day and we call ourselves alternative Latinos. We grew up here, listening to hip hop and punk. It’s an identity I have always struggled (with). I’m never going to be American enough because of how I look and my last name. And I’m never gonna be Latino enough because I grew up with American culture.
My restaurants have Mexican flavors, but we do a lot of Asian flavors as well. It’ s food I grew up with. I grew up eating Korean food and Chinese food. I identify myself in a way that Latino culture is, it’s (a blend of) cultures from other countries that we all kind of integrate. Growing up in a Mexican household people expect you to eat only Mexican food. In my house, we rarely ate Mexican food. My mom was always into healthy food, so growing up we ate a lot of vegetarian (food) and she would try to cook food from different parts of the world. We had neighbors from India where we’d go to their house and eat their food. And (we had) friends from Taiwan. For POI-Ō, my dad had chicken restaurants in Mexico and it was rotisserie chicken restaurants. We were always saying we wanted to open a restaurant together. It’s a food item that translates across culture. I added the Asian flavors because they are the flavors I love and grew up with. The Korean with the kimchi and Filipino food with the adobo flavors, we use a lot of soy sauce, a lot of ginger. You don’t really use that in Mexican cooking.
My food is my childhood, my coming to America. It’s me on a plate. It’s personal. What I always get is, ‘You don’t look Latino.’ How am I supposed to look? There’s this expectation that I’m supposed to look a certain way. Coming into the restaurant they expect Mexican food. They expect burritos, tacos, chips and salsa. We’re trying to get away from that. It’s something that I have always struggled with, especially growing up here. There’s a saying from a show in Mexico called La India Maria, ‘Ni de aqui, ni de alla.’ (Neither here, nor there). That is exactly what I am … if I went back to Mexico I would be alienated. I thought about, what if I go back to Mexico and open a restaurant down there? I think it would not be the business part, it would be the culture shock that I would have again. I am used to doing everything the American way.
Being a Hispanic woman gives me a sense of pride in my culture and my roots. As a Latina from Venezuela in the United States, I enjoy the best of these two cultures and learned to appreciate where I came from. I am proud of that and of where I am today. It’s been quite the journey and I wouldn’t change a thing.
In Latin culture, food and family are very important. I always enjoyed serving food from Latin America for people to experience. The food and culture represent a variety of countries. This gives me the opportunity to use different flavors, ingredients, and techniques from my birth country and also from neighboring Latin regions. Giving our guests a ‘Taste of Latin’ is what we’re all about.
Para mi ser Mexicano en este país significa: Venir de un país lleno de cultura, de arte, de un sin fin de riqueza gastronómica, de un país con muchos lugares turísticos, con ciudades llenas de historias, estados con playas hermosas, con selvas y desiertos, con volcanes enormes, y una cultura de unidad en cualquier desgracia. Donde nos quitamos la ropa para dársela a alguna persona con mayor necesidad y puedo escribir mucho más pero eso es un poquito de lo que significa para mí ser Mexicano.
Para nosotros es un gran orgullo servir platillos 100% mexicanos sin cambios ni alteraciones en las recetas. En particular me siento tan feliz cuando una persona me llama y me dice, ‘Gracias, me recordó a la comida de mi mamá o de mi abuelita.’ Ahí es cuando me siento orgulloso de lo que tanto me apasiona. No es solo hacer comida y ganar dinero, lo más importante es hacer sentir a las personas lo más cercano a sus lugares de origen. Es mirar una sonrisa de agradecimiento y el poder unir familias con nuestro menú, ya que gracias a nuestro menú regular y nuestro menú vegano, muchas familias han vuelto a comer juntas eso es hermoso. Por esa razón cada día me levanto con ánimos de hacer felices a muchas personas, pero no lo hago yo solo tengo un equipo maravilloso que me ayuda aparte de mi gran esposa y mis hijas pero sobre todo esto Dios es quien ha puesto este don en mis manos y él es quien hace posible todo lo que soy y la honra sea para el primero.
Translated: For me, being Mexican in this country means: immigrating from a country rich in culture, art, and gastronomic wealth. A country that offers endless options for tourists—with cities full of stories and history, states with beautiful beaches, jungles, and deserts. Others with huge volcanoes. A culture and people that unite in times of misfortune. Where we take off the clothes off our back to give them to someone with greater need.
I can write a lot more but that’s a little bit of what being Mexican means to me.
It brings us great pride to serve 100% authentic Mexican dishes without changes or modifications to the original recipes. I particularly feel happy when a person calls me and says, “Thank you, it reminded me of my mother’s or my grandmother’s food.”
That’s when I feel proud of what I am doing and what I am so passionate about. It is not just about making food and making money, the most important thing to me is making people feel close to home. It’s looking at grateful smiles and being able to unite families with our menu. Many families come to eat together that is beautiful thanks to our regular and vegan menu. I wake up with the intention of making many people happy.
I have a wonderful team that helps me, alongside my great wife and daughters. Above all, God is the one who has gifted me with my craft and he is the one who makes all of this possible.