Part I: Four more hands to work the fields

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Lalo García is the head chef at Máximo Bistrot in Mexico City, which was named one of the top 100 restaurants in the world. Photo by Mallika Vora.

Laura Tillman: It helps to start at the beginning, how I decided to write this book in the first place. When I met Lalo, I was looking to tell a story of a bunch of people who worked in a restaurant. That was my first idea, to tell the story of someone who's a dishwasher, someone who's an aspiring chef, someone who's a manager or a waiter. Then I met Lalo and it became clear that he was living all of these lives at the same time. He is the person who flies first class to eat and drink at a restaurant in some remote corner of the world. But he also, inside of him, is still very much the farm worker that he was as a child. 

He was really wrestling with these contradictions and I think part of what's moving about that journey to me is, it touches on a lot of things that are very specific to him but are also a little more universal. All of us kind of are in this trap where we want more, we want to stay true to who we are but we're also chasing success in different ways. That is one of the pieces of the story that I think feels very human and real to me and at the same time very extraordinary, because I really haven't met a lot of people who have truly lived all of those lives and truly had that insight that he does, into both what's beautiful about something that's shiny but what's also kind of false about it at the same time.

Lalo García is the chef of the restaurant Máximo Bistrot in Mexico City. It was recently named one of the top 100 restaurants in the world.

Lalo García: My name is Eduardo García. I am a cook. Along with my wife, we are head of the restaurant group in Mexico City.

Laura Tillman: He is originally from San José de las Pilas, Guanajuato, a very small village. As a child, he came to the U.S. to work as a migrant farm worker with his family, working the fields from Florida to Michigan.

Lalo García: What I remembered the most about my village is its nature, its food, its working, its animals, everything to do with the earth. It's a very humble village. Most of the people that live in my village are now in the U.S. It's a beautiful place, but there is no economic growth. It's just a farm and most of it is just a farm that's not even enough to sustain life.

Laura Tillman: His parents' names were Guadalupe (Lupe) and Natalia. They both came from families where their main source of income was from farm work.

Lalo García: One of the things that I loved about my village was the food. I can almost smell those moments. My mom's kitchen or my grandmother's kitchen was made with adobe and bricks and everything was [cooked by] fire. So you can imagine the smell. Everything's smoked and everything is based on corn and everything is what we harvested ourselves or fed animals that we slaughtered to eat later. Imagine having a fresh tortilla in the morning before we go to work in the fields or imagine those days where there was a feast and everybody got together and everybody pitched in with something that they brought from their hoUSes. It's always, always something that they actually grew themselves. For me, at those moments, I didn't really quite understand that life was about eating and eating amazing. For me now, that's what keeps me going into the kitchen.

"I really haven't met a lot of people who have truly lived all of those lives and truly had that insight that he does," says Mexico City-based journalist Laura Tillman, who has reported on immigration issues for 15 years. Photo by Jackie Russo.

Laura Tillman: When he was two years old, they moved to the Estado de Mexico, which is kind of a suburb of Mexico City, to an area where a lot of people in Mexico were migrating to at the time in search of work. His father was going back and forth to the U.S., working as a migrant farm worker in the pursuit of trying to get his family ahead to earn more money than he'd be able to make in Mexico. His mother was back home with four kids, raising them by herself. When Lalo was 10 years old, they made this decision to leave his sisters in Mexico and to go — Lalo, his brother and his parents — to work as farm workers in the U.S. 

It was a decision that a lot of families have made. Mexico has a very inflexible class system. There's not a lot of upward mobility in Mexico. If you're from a poor, rural family, your best hope, a lot of the time, is making this difficult journey to try to earn more, to try to find a better life for you and your family.

Lalo García: I didn't really know my father very well up to that moment, because he had migrated to the States since the '70s.

Laura Tillman: This was a tradition, essentially, in his family that had been going on for generations. By the time Lalo took part in it, Lalo's grandfather was part of the Bracero Program, which was started during World War II to bring farmworkers to the U.S. from Mexico, in the absence of workers in the U.S. who had gone off to fight in Europe. I think in the '70s and '80s, when his father made the choice to leave and then when Lalo joined them, it wasn't the time of the greatest amount of migration from the U.S. to Mexico. I think a lot of it was economic forces. 

There was a lot of economic instability in the country at the time. For a lot of rural people, when perhaps in earlier years they were surviving off of the milpa, off of this system of agriculture where plants are intercropped, they were able to have enough to survive. But with modern medicine, with the fact that people were living longer, with the fact that people had gone to the U.S. and come back and seen that there were other things that they wanted to buy, there was another quality of life that they wanted to pursue. I think part of what was driving these changes had to do with that pursuit of a little bit more income that might help your family to buy a car, to get the medical treatment that they needed, things like that.

The Migrant Chef: The Life and Times of Lalo García
is the story of one man's experience, from picking crops in the U.S. to being deported back to Mexico, where he now creates dishes that pay homage to the food he once gathered from the land. Photo courtesy of W.W. Norton.

Lalo García: I remember everything about going to the U.S. We are two sisters and one brother. When me and my brother went to the U.S., my sisters didn't follow. They stayed in Mexico. My mother was very, very upset that they were going to stay. So the first time we were going to leave, we didn't because my mother couldn't do it. My mother had been a single mother for about 14 years. She couldn't put herself or put the family through that moment where they had to stay and we, as kids, as boys, would leave with my father. But eventually, they made that decision. It's going to happen. You and your brother are going to come to the U.S. 

The thing is, you know most families that take their kids to the U.S. from a country like ours where education it's really not a priority... I'm not saying my father was a bad person. He was a very loving father. But it's just the way they think. They think that by taking their kids to the U.S. to work in the fields, in this case, their economics is going to grow because there's four more hands to put in the fields. 

I was nine years old, my brother was seven. I remember the day we took the bus to Tijuana like it was yesterday. Those moments stay in your brain forever. They never actually leave because those are big changes for a human. So we took a bus to Tijuana. I remember probably 70% of the bus ride. I remember when we were in Tijuana looking for a coyote that my father called "El Guero." We looked for him in different homes. Finally, when he found the coyote, me, my brother and my mother crossed the border. It was at night. I remember this big fence that had a hole in the bottom. We crossed it and we walked all night with a bunch of people from Mexico, from Central America. Once we got to the other side, my cousin, who was legal in the U.S., picked us up and took us to his home in Los Angeles.

Listen to more of the conversation with Laura Tillman and Lalo García. Part II, Part III, and Part IV.