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Carlos Garcia

"I started when I was 10 with my own business. There was this guy selling burgers in my neighborhood, and I was his #1 customer because I love burgers. One day, he just didn’t show up anymore, and I was going crazy. So, I told my mom, “Hey, would you let me sell burgers out of our garage?” And she said, “Sure.” But, when a 10-year-old boy comes and tells you that, you’re like, sure, whatever. She told me to ask my dad, and my dad gave the same answer. I took it very seriously, though. The next day, I told my mom I was ready to go buy what we needed, and she was like, “Oh, you were serious?” Yes, I was! So, we go and buy everything, plates, and a charcoal grill. The guy had a food truck, and he’d heat the meat and buns on the grill and had a bar where everyone could fix their burger with all the toppings just the way they wanted it. Burgers are different here than over there. Over here, it’s meat and some seasoning. Over there, we make it more like a meatloaf, fixing it with eggs and parsley and different ingredients. My mom said, “I’m only showing you how to make these just once, so pay attention.” When we got back from the grocery, I called all my friends and neighbors, and we all worked to make flyers and ride our bicycles around the neighborhood putting them in mailboxes. I started with 20 burgers at 7:00 and by 7:30, I had sold out. So, the next day I make the same 20 and probably for one week just like that. And it grows so fast, I start selling more and more to the point I sell like $350 a night after five, six months. So obviously, when we go back to school from our vacations, I just settle in on the weekends and some nights when I can because I played soccer. I was eleven at that point. Not yet, but I was a professional soccer player, and the only two things I know to do is play soccer and cook.

 

One of my customers owned a French restaurant in my hometown, Guadalajara. He tells me he sees I really love cooking and that I can go to his restaurant any time and can talk to the chef if I'm interested, part-time or something. He said if I wanted to be in this industry, I’d better be in a restaurant. So, on my 11th birthday, I show up to the restaurant and this guy introduces me with the chef and he put me on as an assistant cook; the only thing I do is wash vegetables and organize coolers. I don't use a knife, because of my age. I already know how to use one, but they don't let me at the restaurant. I just do basic things. But one day when they do burgers, he's like, "You want to do it?" So, he starts bringing me more and more. I played a lot outside and traveled a lot with soccer, and when I was almost 18, I had a very bad injury on one of my legs, ending my soccer career. So, I just I said, "What else I know to do?" I go back to the restaurant, and my own business is still working. I pay my friends like I'd pay my employees, and I keep in my business growing by cooking other things like steak. Like I had a steak house, but all in a food truck out of my garage. I made a kind of patio using the garage or tables. And then I'm also back to the restaurant, obviously the one I started in. Then I got a very good opportunity in one town. I also was a kitchen manager when I was 17; It's hard because I go in with people who have been there 30, years and they don't like a little kid for a boss. It was hard, but it was a good experience. I say I started in a hotel, though. I was cooking with a chef who was the chef for the three previous Mexican presidents. Maybe it takes a little ego to say this, but I have very good knife skills - and I learned from that guy. He cut vegetables and everything super-fast, and he gave me his tricks. Then they opened the first culinary school in my city, and I had the opportunity to be the first generation.

 

Then I got the opportunity to come to Chicago in 1999. It was good, but it wasn't for me. It's not that friendly. Here, you hear everybody say hi to you even if they don't know you. So, I met these guys opening a restaurant in Tennessee, Beethoven's. I've been corporate before, but it’s not what I really like. Probably the first small place I've been was Jeffrey's. I really like to be in places like small businesses, you know? And then was with Puckett's when they started Puckett's BoatHouse. They called and said, "We need your help," and I say okay, let's help. So, I go there, and we talk; I have three days to make many recipes and open it. I think it was the most challenging thing I ever did; I don't know how I did it. And believe me, on opening day, even I don't know how I am going to plate and present my food. So, it was hard, but it made that business very successful. I got the opportunity when I was there for a competition called the World Food Championship. Obviously, I'm participating from Nashville, but they had one from every state. The first three places won the golden ticket, then they gave you the pass to Las Vegas to the finals. So, I was like one out 500 chefs around world to participate for a $300,000 prize. So, I have the second place on the Nashville competition, and I compete against 500 chefs, and I get 17th place, but if I'd be under 15th, I would have come back home with $10,000. Then I had other competitions around here, and it's a good experience, too. After that, I help open Homestead Manor and make it a restaurant. The original idea was Italian, so we had a brick oven and had a garden in the back where we grew vegetables for the restaurant. Then I met them here [Matt and Ashlea Hogancamp, owners of Herban Market], and they wanted to open more of a food business So when we're talking about the ideas they have and the vision I have, all this makes me feel like I can do something. So, we created all of this.

 

Then I met a guy who's the manager for Dolly Parton, so I started cooking a lot for her; when she is recording videos or commercials or whatever, I'm the chef serving them. It's awesome. I'm very, very blessed to have that; she is an amazing person. She is my angel, you know? I say it's a blessing. And right now, I'm in a great place. They respect me. And I have the freedom to create, to try whatever. My daughter is my sous chef. When she was 9, she started saying she wanted to be a chef, and I said no, please, it's too demanding. I love my career and everything I have that makes me happy, but it’s very demanding. I missed I don’t know how many birthdays and holidays because of this. But she’s gone to the best culinary schools, and she’s my sous chef now. It’s awesome. My right hand is my daughter, the person I trust to have consistency and my back. I’m lucky to have very good people working for me all the time, training and teaching, but I’ve never had someone like my daughter who I’m 100 percent confident in.

 

One of my things when I create a recipe is to consider the place I am in. I’m creating a dish for that place, not bringing it to another place. If I create a salad for this place, I’m not going to bring it over somewhere else to sell it. Some recipes I bring because they are significant to me, but even I don’t share them with anybody. What inspires me is my mom. She is a very good cook. The only thing she ever really taught me is my burger meat blend. Other than that, nothing, but I’m very nosy when she’s cooking. I’m always there, trying what she cooks. I got my palate from her - she is not boring at all, and she cooked all the time, 6 days a week. Every day, she didn’t repeat a dish. For me, as a person that loves food, it was good for me. When I’m creating a dish, all the good flavors I use I got from my mom. But my dad loves food, too; he would search the whole city searching for a good restaurant or food truck. He took us to places where we’d say, “Are we really eating here?” and he’d say, “I know it looks very bad, but just try the food.” And yeah, it was insane how good the food was. I think about the place I am and try to see or be different. A lot of people can cook traditional things, but I always like to put different touches on it. I’m from Mexico, and I love our cuisine. I also like pushing the envelope. My tacos are street tacos, made exactly the way I did when I was young – it’s hard to bring 100 percent of the flavors, but I try to bring as much as I can from what I remember. Whatever Mexican food I sell here, it is the most authentic it can be. I like to create recipes that are what I like. My daughter says, “Just because you like it, you think everyone else will?” And I say yes. On this menu we have chicken pot pie, it’s very traditional. My daughter said it was so boring, but I said nobody makes gluten free chicken pot pie. Just wait to see the response. Well, it’s the number one dish on the dinner menu. It’s not about how traditional it is – it’s how you choose to make it unique."

 

- Carlos Garcia, Executive Chef for Herban Market

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