By Staff, November 2017 Issue. Meet the rest of the Class of 2017 here.
She’s the mastermind behind the “comida chingona” that’s earned her Barrio brand national recognition and countless local honors. She’s one of the country’s foremost authorities on bold, regional Mexican cooking. She is a founding member of Devour Phoenix, a five-time James Beard Award nominee and a 2004 Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame inductee.
And while the first of her four current restaurants, Barrio Café, celebrated its 15th anniversary this year, Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s focus on familia, cultura and activismo have not wavered.
“James Beard is like being nominated for an academy award and is the industry’s biggest honor,” she said. “I have received my accolades and honors, but to be recognized by the LGTBQ community is amazing and a real honor.”
Esparza, who married her wife, Jo, in April 2013, has been an outspoken and visible member of the LGBTQ community, an advocate for immigrants, an ambassador of the arts and an integral part of her family’s 800-year legacy as bakers and chefs.
“Familia es todo,” said Esparza, whose parents “arrived in a country with no papers, no language, no money and definitely no education, yet they managed to own and operate Mexican bakeries in California.”
“Community service has always been part of our family. My father was a bakery who also happened to be the elder of his congregation. So not only am I a bakers daughter but a preachers daughter as well. On a Wednesday I would accompany him to sell his bread out of his van selling it at rual migrant work camps. Then on Saturday morning we would be back to the same camps, but this time selling religious magazines,” she recalled. “At my father’s bakery we helped folks fill out forms and translate for them. My uncle placed an add in the newspaper that would fund and start the United Farmworkers union [UFW] in the early 1960s. He supported Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta during the ‘huelga’ … I feel a need for activism because of my upbringing and community service.”
Esparza has carried this commitment to community with her as she’s built her empire. One example of which was her participation in February’s A Day Without Immigrants protest, as a part of which she closed three of her restaurants for the business day in response to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
“I feel a need for activisim because of my upbringing and community service. I cannot stand inequality,” she said. “When I see a group picked on or marginalized it drives me nuts. Perhaps because I was forced to live my youth in the closet, or perhaps because I cannot stand privilege …”
Another battle Esparza has fought throughout the past year has been one against her own body. After being diagnosed with Sarcoidosis – a rare disease that causes clusters of abnormal inflammatory cells – the acclaimed chef adopted a vegan lifestyle (along with Rick Simpson Oil, natural Yierbitas [medicine] as treatment
“Looks as if it worked because, after a year long struggle – I am in remission,” she explained. “My beautiful wife, Jo, has been an integral part to my speedy health recovery. Believe it or not, a chef loves to be cooked for and it was Jo’s wonderful love and food that brought me back from the dead.”
Whether it’s cuisine, art, politics, community or her health, Esparza has established herself as a force to be reckoned with.
“I come from a long line of chingones and chingonas, we know how to thrive,” she said. “I look forward to the future as I feel that I am putting out my best food to date at Barrio Café Gran Reserva. Especially after a year of bullshit health issues and hater hating on me because of my political stance. I am back and I have something to prove!”
Web-Exclusive Q&A with Silvana Salcido Esparza
Echo: Let’s take it back to where it all began, sort of. You attended high school in Merced, California, is that where you consider yourself to be from?
Chef Silvana: Although I was born in Los Angeles, I was raised in Merced, a small farming community in central California, located only 83 miles from majestic Yosemite National Park where I learned my love for nature, hiking and skiing. I stayed in Merced until I moved to Miami Florida from 1979 until 1987.
Echo: What brought you to Arizona and what year was that?
Chef Silvana: I came to Arizona to attend culinary school a year after taking care of my mother during her failing health in 1995.
Echo: Was there a defining moment when you knew that this was YOUR home/community? And what was that like?
Chef Silvana: In 2002 and 2001 I left Arizona for Mexico. I backpacked the entire country eating my way through villages, towns and cities. When it was time to return back to the states, I explored moving back to California, possibly New York or even Chicago. But my heart had already experienced six years of Arizona and was in love with the largest little town I had ever lived in. So back to Arizona it was, and it’s where I have been ever since. The city loves me as much as I love it!
Echo: Coming from a long line of bakers and cooks, was there a definitive moment when you realized this was your calling/purpose or was it ever-present?
Chef Silvana: I always knew that the 800-year family legacy would continue, I just didn’t know it would be through me. And through me, the next generation of Salcido’s are being trained to carry on.
Echo: How do you measure success? And to what do you attribute it?
Chef Silvana: That is a loaded question. I measure success by 1. Surpassing my parents success, and that was hard being they arrived in a country with no papers, no language, no money and definitely no education. Yet hey managed to own and operate Mexican bakeries in California. And 2. Staying true to my core and somehow keeping my integrity in this hellacious industry. Also, I have managed to stay somewhat sober in a field that creates drunks and drug addicts.
Echo: Congratulations on another outstanding move with your reopening of Barrio Cafe Gran Reseva with a vegan-friendly and plant-based menu. How has the response been thus far? Can you tell us a little bit about what prompted you to explore and adopt this type of cuisine?
Chef Silvana: I wanted to work on a new concept that was fast casual and of course vegan, but the more I worked on it the more I felt as if my actual concept was where I needed to start. So I took my fairytale restaurant and converted it into 50- to 60-percent vegan with a vegan tasting menu.
Echo: Are there any confirmed details – or even teasers – you can give us on your new concept (in development), Barrio Nopalero?
Chef Silvana: I am working out recipes at Gran Reserva. From here let’s see what develops. I have a totally vegan smoked mole that is killer. I loved that a woman sat in my dining room and experienced mole for the first time in her life because it was finally vegan.
Echo: We’d consider you among the Valley’s most decorated – and widely known – LGBTQ community members; which recognition has meant the most to you and why?
Chef Silvana: I have reiceved my accolades and honors, but to be recognized by the LGTBQ community is amazing and a real honor.
Echo: You’re becoming known for the training you’re investing in, and the opportunities you’re presenting to, the next generation of chefs What makes that so important to you? Preserving culture? Creating opportunities? Passing the torch?
Chef Silvana: When I was in culinary school I was watching those cooking shows on PBS. First, it was French cuisine by Jaques Pepin, Yan Can Cook got down with Chinese, so on. Then it was time for Mexican food. Rick Bayless comes on explaining how they eat in Mexico. It’s as if Woody Allen was explaining how lesbians behave. It hit me at my core. It was then and there that I set out to represent my culture and family legacy through my cuisine. I also set out to make sure that brown people get a chance to cook and learn their cuisine.
I have been lucky enouh to land with CCap and provide a scholarship that involves an internship. So far, so beautiful. I love to teach in the kitchen [and I’m] teaching a Chef Silvana scholarship winner now. Jennifer was born in Durango, but ignored the cuisine outside of her mother’s. So to watch her face light up when she eats hoja santa or xoconostle is nothing short of amazing and worth every minute of teaching.
Echo: You put together an annual holiday toy drive with the Viejitos Car Club. Why is giving back in this way meaningful to you and how long has this tradition been taking place?
Chef Silvana: Being a lowrider is part of what I do for fun but it’s deeper than just cars. It’s cultura and giving back to the community. No one shows up with more toys at toy drives than the lowrider community. Let me give you an example; Viejitos CC, Barrio Café and Calle 16 will throw an annual event where we hold a toy drive for the Children’s Crisis Center but this year we added a spring event where we asked folks to donate chones (underwear for children). Lowriders showed up from New Mexico, California and Texas with loads of kids socks and underwear. That is some lowrider love in action.
Echo: What would you consider your greatest feat?
Esparza: I am still waiting to answer that question. Cooking for and eating with BB King was quite special though.
Echo: Who are some of your role models/inspirations and why?
Chef Silvana: My parents – no papers, no English, no problem. Dolores Huerta for her steadfast dedication to a noble cause. And anyone who dares to dream and then follows through to make it a reality.
Echo: Do you consider yourself a role model? Why/why not?
Chef Silvana: When the Barrio Café earned 5 stars from the Arizona Republic, a customer told me that “with much success, comes great responsibility – be ready.” So I took that to heart, I guess.
Echo: What advice do you have for anyone looking to dedicate more time to a cause they feel passionately about?
Chef Silvana: DO IT. It’s not easy, but it is so satisfying to follow your instinct and calling. This world could use more people who are passionate about anything!
Congratulations to the Class of 2017! Meet the rest of the inductees here.