A No-Nonsense Profile of Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza
“A fucking badass” is the literal definition of the self-appointed “Chingona” chef.
It is obvious at first glance that Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza cuts her own figure. Born and raised in California, lived in Florida for eight years, returned to California, and eventually settled in Arizona, she blazes her own path.
She spent a good amount of Saturday mornings in her youth at the congregation where her father was an overseeing and founding elder. They would knock on residents’ doors, preaching the word of God. “I was not keen on disturbing folks, but I did enjoy entering folks’ homes,” she says. “Especially those migrant work camps—where I was able to see, first hand, the poverty that I did not experience at home.”
Thanks to these special experiences, she became keenly aware of her privileged life and the wide social-economic differences that existed among people. In addition, it was where she first tried her hand at the culinary industry and entrepreneurialism.
Chef Esparza and her father would return to these camps on Wednesdays when they would sell bread from the bakery to the migrants out of her father’s van. And just like the migrant children who worked the fields with their parents under the hot California summer sun, she started working at the bakery at six years old. At the same time, her mother and grandmother taught her how to cook. One of the first things she made was Chile Rellenos. Making the proper egg batter was challenging, but eventually, she got the hang of it. By fifteen, she was mastering the art of making Carnitas to sell at the same bakery, diving headfirst into her first business.
After going away for a short stint in the banking industry, she returned to her true love—the kitchen. She started working at a catering company but eventually realized that she did not know enough about cooking. So, she moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 1996 to attend Scottsdale Culinary Institute.
She applied for and was granted an International Association of Culinary Professionals Scholarship to travel and study food after graduating from culinary school. She chose to backpack through Mexico to really understand what her native land had to offer in terms of food and drink.
Though her family came from the Northern part of the country, the profound and immense southern Mexican cuisine during that trip “pulled on my heartstrings and became the foundation of my career,” she says. “Cooking with traditional cooks is where I found my culinary soul.”
When she returned to Phoenix in 2002, she opened her first restaurant, Barrio Café in Calle 16, a less-desirable neighborhood. To make the location more appealing, she worked with artists to paint murals highlighting Mexican heritage and creative interests beyond food.
During the early days, it was a challenge to make people understand her food. Clients left because she did not serve chips and salsa. Nowadays, the proliferation of authentic Mexican chefs and cuisines has changed things dramatically. The continuous influx of Mexican immigrants has brought exceptional Mexican food to the United States. One can find great Mole Poblano from Puebla in New York City. Oaxacan immigrants are now putting up great restaurants in Los Angeles. Everywhere in the country, one can find great Mexican food.
Even the ingredients are better. Yellow processed cheese is being replaced with the deliciously creamy Quesillo from Oaxaca. Instead of the Americanized crispy tacos, soft corn tortillas are all the rage. Food trucks and street vendors are also blooming. Many street vendors are serving better and more authentic Mexican food than what was served in the so-called Mexican restaurants back in the day. “I would like to call this a correction in erroneous perceptions about our food—and while we are at it—our culture,” she says. “All of this makes me extremely happy. I have fought hard in my career to help change those erroneous perceptions of Mexican food. Good news is that now, there are a lot more of us trying to do the same thing.”
Speaking about discrimination as a proud, openly queer person, she has seen her share of issues firsthand. Though ironically, in her experience, the men in the kitchen have shown her, a lesbian, more equality than they do to other heterosexual females. In fact, she has faced more discrimination for being Mexican than for her sexuality.
The only incident related to being a female was when two male Mexican cooks she hired did not want to be told what to do by a woman. She promptly fired them and did their jobs until she could replace them.
This “Chingona” attitude gets her respect or gets people running toward the door. She found that the way to eliminate the male-dominant discrimination rampant in the industry is simply by asserting, “I’m the boss!”
Chef Esparza is active not only in the kitchen but also in the community at large.
One of her first faithful customers told her: with great success comes great responsibility. It has rung true ever since, and it is something she does from the bottom of her heart. To her, it is important to be a part of the community you serve. During Covid, she converted the kitchen into a volunteer community kitchen and fed thousands for months. She closes the restaurant for Day without Immigrants. She also spoke out against the much-criticized Arizona laws SB1070 and SB1064, as she collaborated with local artists to launch the Calle 16 Mural Project in 2010 as a protest against the former.
“Most chefs and restaurant owners stay in the closet about their personal views. I don’t,” she says. “Closets are for clothes.”
Speaking about things she likes in addition to Mexican cuisine, she is also a big fan of Italian food and culture.
And a rather well-known secret is that she is a big fan of vintage cars. She owns her dream cars, including a 1965 Chevrolet Impala convertible, a 1959 ragtop Volkswagen, a 1941 Chevy Panel, and a custom 1950 Chevy Sedan Show lowrider, among others. She embraced the Chicano Culture of California that she grew up with. And she made sure she was the one driving the car, not sitting next to a man driving it.
She is now in the midst of finishing a book called La Hija de la Chingada, an autobiographical cookbook. It should be out by the end of 2023. She is also working with Wonder in NYC, a start-up and pioneer in the food delivery business.
With her strong will, ability, and attitude, there is no doubt this badass chef will keep riding on her magnificent journey!
TROORA MAGAZINE | MAY 2023
WRITTEN BY CARY WONG
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHEF SILVANA SALCIDO ESPARZA