How L.A. Chefs Are Influenced by Their Grandmothers


The lines on my abuelita's hands intersect, like roads on a complex map drawn from 92 years of existence.
In those hands she carries an innate knowledge of exactly just how much salt and how many epazote leaves to add to her frijoles negros, her black bean dish that's famous in my family. The simmering beans fill her small kitchen with a fragrant herbal and smoky smell all too familiar to the three generations of women sitting around the matriarch. As she swiftly folds over the beans, my grandmother recalls past years in her native Veracruz: the herbs she had in her garden, newly caught fish delivered every morning and freshly picked mangoes for breakfast. Her stories come alive, echoing the words of Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel, who posited that "everyone's past is locked up in their recipes — the past of the individual and the past of a nation as well."

In her kitchen, we get in line, pour ourselves a bowl, grab a tortilla and ravenously eat two to three servings within 30 minutes. Most of us live far away, and the long trip to abuelita's comes with the excitement of eating her beans, a seemingly simple dish that we have never been able to re-create. 

The beans are cooked to perfection, reaching a creamy consistency while retaining their starchy bite. The flavors of her beloved herbs — big-eared oregano from her garden, avocado tree leaves — merge in every spoonful. There's no greater comfort than sitting there and listening to her stories while eating the frijoles we've been eating since childhood.

My abuelita's primary form of communicating her love has always been through her food. She tells us her story through her dishes, and in doing so she sheds light on our own history both as Mexicans and as women. By recounting stories and recipes, she reveals a greater history of the land we come from and the vast influences present in each dish she cooks. Each bite makes a transnational history come alive; there's the olive oil she uses in her peanut salsa, brought on ships from Spain; African plantains — first brought to Mexico during the slave trade — color her lentils; and indigenous epazote brings an herbal kick to her stews.

These poignant connections to our grandmothers play a significant role in sparking an interest in food, especially for food professionals. Abuelitas are revered by many chefs because, as chef Gilberto Cetina Jr. of Chichén Itzá says, "They created our flavor memories." In an industry as male-dominated as food service, it is important to honor these inspirational women who often directly introduced chefs to their love of cooking for others.Sitting outside his renowned Yucatán-style Mexican restaurant, Cetina recalls hearing about his abuelita's fonda in the small town of Tizimin, Yucatán.

Chichen Itza chef Gilberto Cetina Jr. remembers cramming into his abuelita's tiny kitchen every weekend to eat her iconic dish: puchero de tres carnes.
Chichen Itza chef Gilberto Cetina Jr. remembers cramming into his abuelita's tiny kitchen every weekend to eat her iconic dish: puchero de tres carnes.
Samanta Helou

"If you were from out of town or a traveler and you were going to spend the night, that was the only place where you would eat. Whatever she would make, that's what everybody from out of town would eat," he says.

Cetina remembers cramming into his abuelita's tiny kitchen every weekend to eat her iconic dish: puchero de tres carnes. The complex stew contains three kinds of meat, seven types of vegetables, saffron, rice and garbanzo beans, and is served with a vermicelli noodle sofrito. The dish has Spanish origins but evolved in the Yucatán to include regional ingredients such as plantain, yam and lime. "That is a dish that very much reminds me of her. I think it's the one dish that made me start enjoying vegetables as a kid, because it's such a great mix of flavors," says Cetina.

His father, Gilberto Cetina Sr., began helping at his mother's restaurant as a child. As an adult, he migrated to the United States and began working in the restaurant industry, like many immigrants. Eventually, he decided to use the knowledge imparted from his mother and opened Chichén Itzá inside Mercado La Paloma in Los Angeles.

His father has since retired, but the younger Cetina continues his grandmother's legacy of preserving the traditional food of Yucatán. "It all started with that fondita she had in the city of Tizimin, so it all comes from there," he says. "Cooking for me is one of the things that makes me appreciate family and my grandmother. It makes me remember, makes me want to go back to that time, and it also makes me want to continue exploring traditional foods," he says.

In the same market where Cetina continues his grandmother's legacy, Juan Antonio is connecting to his roots through food, too. His family has been making Oaxacan-style ice cream since 1940. It's a style of ice cream using fresh fruit from the region such as mamey, soursop and dragon fruit, but his specialty is the leche quemada or burnt milk flavor that his grandma was known for in Mexico.

Oaxacan chef Juan Antonio feels he owes his success to his grandmother, who instilled in him a business sense and taught him to make his famous leche quemada ice cream.EXPAND
Oaxacan chef Juan Antonio feels he owes his success to his grandmother, who instilled in him a business sense and taught him to make his famous leche quemada ice cream.
Samanta Helou

He remembers his hometown of Tlacolula de Matamoros in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where his grandmother taught him to make this family delicacy. "In Oaxaca, back in the day, there weren't many modes of transport, so my grandparents used burros and carts and they went walking to the neighboring towns to sell their products," Antonio says.

When he migrated to the United States, a fellow Oaxacan asked him to make his signature leche quemada ice cream for a family party. The ice cream was a hit, and Antonio realized he should use the legacy of knowledge his grandmother left him.

He started selling his ice cream on weekends door-to-door with his wife and children, while maintaining a restaurant job during the week. As his ice cream grew in popularity, he dedicated himself to it full-time and opened Oaxacalifornia, a stand that specializes in this vast array of ice cream flavors made just as his abuelita taught him.

He feels he owes his success to his grandmother, who instilled in him a business sense and taught him to make his specialty.

"When I first started as a kid, I used to get embarrassed selling," Antonio says. "But she pushed us and she led us with her example. She talked to the people and served them, and it was a valuable lesson for me "Abuelitas are pillars of where we come from. We always carry them in our hearts and remember them," he says.

Raul Morales, chef of Taqueria Vista Hermosa, a food stand that specializes in al pastor–style meat, experienced a similar influence as a child in Michoacán.

He recalls his grandmother in her humble outdoor kitchen made of clay and brick. She would cook everything by hand atop her wood-burning stove — smoke would fill the air, but he didn't mind.

"I remember it being really small because my grandma was very short. She always had masa, molcajete, tomatoes roasting on her stove, and she always had chilies," Morales reminisces.

Watching his grandmother prepare this simple but flavorful dish made a lasting impression on chef Raul Morales. "She made very humble dishes but made things with a lot of love, flavor and passion," he says.EXPAND
Watching his grandmother prepare this simple but flavorful dish made a lasting impression on chef Raul Morales. "She made very humble dishes but made things with a lot of love, flavor and passion," he says.
Samanta Helou

He would watch in awe as she prepared moles, corundas (the Michoacán-style tamal), and one of his favorite dishes: rajas, a roasted chile, tomato, onion and epazote stew typically eaten in tortillas like a taco. Morales remembers his abuelita's hands cleaning the chili without a knife. "I used to say, 'Grandma, you're going to burn your hands,' and she would say, 'No, no, I'm fine.'"

Watching his grandmother prepare this simple but flavorful dish made a lasting impression on Morales. "She made very humble dishes but made things with a lot of love, flavor and passion," he says.

After moving to the United States, Morales worked various odd jobs before he started catering tacos at parties. That's when he realized he always had a passion for cooking, a passion that began in that little smoke-filled kitchen. "Now I make the connection to being a child, my grandmother, and an adult, I've always loved cooking and I'm going to die cooking," Morales explains.

Abuelitas are crucial to Mexican culture — the matriarchs that bind the family together, their wisdom extends from life advice to the best way to make flavorful frijoles. Their recipes are the stuff of legend, passed down orally from generation to generation. It is in the kitchen where the family unites to experience the culinary artistry and love that emanates from an abuelita's dishes. Many of our greatest chefs first experienced the power of cooking by spending time in the kitchen with their abuelitas. It is these women, who carry ancestral knowledge in their hands, to whom diners owe a debt of gratitude for transmitting their skills to professionals in the kitchens of our favorite restaurants. Whether in Mexico or the United States, our grandmothers' recipes know no borders, and they continue to remind us of our past, connect us to our roots and influence our future.


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