Part IV: Marriage and Máximo Bistrot

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Bacalao negro al miso y pico de gallo. Photo by Alejandro Yanes

Lalo García: It took me a few years of being in Mexico to think that I could really open a restaurant. What really changed everything was my wife. I met Gabby working with Enrique Olvera.

Laura Tillman: So Lalo goes to become the chef de cuisine at Pujol. Before that, he works briefly at a hotel that's also connected to Enrique Olvera called Condesa DF. The manager there is a woman named Gabrielle Lopez Cruz. They get to know each other. At first, Lalo doesn't really seem to catch on that Gabby is pursuing him, that she's interested in him. I think it's also this moment where he's really in his own head. He's had this difficult stretch. Eventually, they do end up together and it does change everything.

I think a lot of people who know Lalo and Gabby understand that Lalo's success is really intertwined with Gabby. Of course Lalo could have been a successful chef but the way that he has been able to execute a vision and create this restaurant that is so elegant, that is so much about the customer experience as well as the food and the kind of interconnection between those things, was Gabby.

"I do see Máximo as a political statement," says Lalo García in his kitchen. Photo by Alejandro Yanes

Lalo García: Part of the success of opening a restaurant is actually managing it well. When I met my wife, Gabby, she was working for Enrique Olvera as well. We would always talk about us having a little restaurant of our own. All the ideas that we had were all the same. We both wanted the same things. This is when I told myself, I'm not ready, we are ready to open the restaurant. We wanted to have that little restaurant that became a big restaurant.

Laura Tillman: Máximo Bistrot was this little corner bistro. It was in the Roma neighborhood, which is now this really happening part of Mexico City. But at the time they opened there, it was still recovering from the 1985 earthquake.

Lalo García: When we started Máximo, we were doing bistro food with Mexican ingredients but super French.

Laura Tillman: It was a little bit more of a straightforward menu of things like steak frites and ratatouille or mussels.

Lalo García: We later realized that people in Mexico have a very good palate. Also, we realized that more people from other countries were coming to the city and they actually wanted Mexican food.

Laura Tillman: Slowly, as Mexican food was added to the menu, Lalo saw the reaction that it was one of the things that the customers responded to most.

Lalo García: I remember those days when I was a little kid, the salsas and the moles that we ate in my village. So one day, I had a customer who was like, "I came to Mexico to have Mexican food but I see that this isn't a Mexican restaurant." I was like, "Don't worry, I can make you Mexican food." From that day on, I have a mixture of Mexican recipes with techniques from other countries, like Italy and France in places like that.

The original location of Máximo Bistrot was on a corner in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood, an area that was still recovering from the 1985 earthquake. The restaurant has relocated but still professes, "Our home is your home." Photo by Alejandro Yanes

Laura Tillman: I think the other thing that was important about it at the beginning was that this was really a farm-to-table restaurant. Lalo, he had been this migrant in the industrialized fields of the United States. And then he had worked for this woman, Michele Sedgwick, who started to teach him about this whole ethos of farm-to-table food in the U.S. He brought that back and he really made an effort to go beyond the superficial sustainability and to really go to the vineyard where the grapes were being grown or see where these products were coming from, see how the workers were treated. Part of the legacy of Máximo Bistrot is also bringing those ideas so forcefully to a restaurant in Mexico City.

Lalo García: When I worked in my village, everything was natural. We just worked the land and the land basically gave us nutritional food without additives. No agri-chemicals, no fertilizers. When I went to the U.S., it was another thing. I remember even us, as humans, before we entered the fields, we would get fumigated with I don't know what. I was a little kid. I thought it was part of the fun. 

When I started working in the restaurant business, I realized that if you want to have a successful restaurant and you actually want to brag about feeding people nutritional food, you have to know where it's coming from. So one of the things that we started to do when we opened Máximo is we wanted to use local ingredients, we wanted to use Mexican ingredients, and we wanted to use natural ingredients for our dishes. 

What we do and what we've done since we opened Máximo is we only use ingredients that we know where they come from. We go to the farms and we go see how they're treating the animals, what they're feeding the animals. That's one of the biggest inspirations that we have for our menu, for Máximo, is knowing where all the ingredients come from.

Laura Tillman: There is this full-throated voice that comes through in the food. In international fine dining, there's kind of an idea of what a fine dining dish might look like and it's probably something you put together with tweezers and liquid nitrogen that maybe tells a story but it tells a story in a really contrived way. When you go to Máximo, you really just see food that's a reflection of the person cooking and what he loves and who he is. A lot of that is the product. 

He loves mushrooms and in mushroom season, you will see dish after dish on the menu of mushrooms. He loves a sincronizada, which is like a tortilla stuffed with meat and then on the outside there's a layer of cheese that's melted on the comal. A sincronizada is not a dish you might expect to see in one of the top hundred restaurants in the world but it is there and it is amazing. It's there because Lalo loves it and it's probably something that you'll love once you leave the restaurant too.

"[Lalo] loves mushrooms and in mushroom season, you will see dish after dish on the menu of mushrooms," says journalist Laura Tillman. Photo by Alejandro Yanes

Lalo García: I do see Máximo as a political statement and here's why. In Mexico, people who tend to have a little bit of money or come from a background of money, tend to see people that don't have money as literally servants. I didn't want to be that. We didn't want to be servants. We wanted to be a restaurant that kinda invites you to their home, and you are our friend. You can get up and get a plate if you want. I am not your servant. So it became political when we realized that most of those people didn't want to be in our house as guests. They wanted to be there as kind of "You work for me and you do as I say and you do it like I want."

Laura Tillman: Back in 2013, there was an incident at Máximo, which became a national scandal in Mexico. A woman came by. She didn't have a reservation, she asked for a table, she waited quite a long time for a table and then there was kind of a misunderstanding, where a table became available, she tried to pounce on it. She was told actually, some diners from inside, we're moving [them] outside so they could smoke. She ended up throwing what some people would call a tantrum, calling up her father who directed the consumer protection agency in Mexico to try to get Máximo shut down. This ended up on the front pages of newspapers. This ended up in the New York Times and El País. It also ended up resulting in the firing of several people at the PROFECO Consumer Protection Agency, including the father of this woman who complained. 

It was a big moment for this restaurant that, at the time, had only been open for a little while, to be thrust into the spotlight. In some ways, it was really good for the restaurant because it showed Lalo and Gabby kind of standing up against corruption. It also showed that this was a restaurant that everyone wanted to get a table at. 

In the years since they opened Máximo, they also started to build this restaurant group. Little by little, they opened a casual brunch/lunch spot called Lalo!. They also opened a traditional, more classic French bistro. Since then, they've also become partners with a number of other chefs in their ventures. They're partners in a Singaporean restaurant called Makan. They're also partners in a new restaurant that took the space of the old Máximo. So they continue to grow and expand.

Kampachi con ponzu, vinagreta de soya y jengibre y rábano. Photo by Alejandro Yanes

Lalo García: We started with four employees and then rapidly, as the restaurant started to grow, we started to hire people. Most of these people that we started to hire were people that eventually would have ended up in the U.S. But because they were doing so well in a restaurant, they just stayed. We loved the idea of hiring more people. From four employees, we would go to 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, up to hundreds. 

Now, we are a group of restaurants that we've started with ex-employees of ours. It has become a dream, not only for me and my wife, but now for the people that work for us. It's kind of like a job creating a group. What we love about it is that more restaurateurs are doing the same thing. Not just us but that the whole restaurant industry in Mexico is an anti-immigration reform to the north.

You know what my dream is, really? My dream is going back to the past, especially in Mexico. Living in a village, it's an amazing feeling because you literally go back in time. Even a small rural town in the U.S. versus a village here in Mexico, it's like you're going back 50, 100 years. For me, that's amazing. I love that. I love going back to the past. But going back to a village like mine, where people know my success, it just seems like I wouldn't fit in anymore. Because people in villages, they really don't take a liking of people who come or have money. They usually would label them as the rich, El Rico, the boss, and I don't want that feeling. It's super sad. 

I don't want to live in a mansion or live in a style of life, having enough to travel the world. I want to go back to my past. I want to live on a farm, to grow my own food, to not have to worry about whether I am devastating or I am part of climate change. That's really always been my goal. What I love the most about it is that me and my wife want the same things, to go back to those days where we worked the land. Even though she's never worked the land, she loves that. So that's my dream.

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