It’s refreshing to speak with cookbook author and professional chef Roberto Santibañez, the man behind New York’s Fonda and DC’s Mi Vida. Although he’s clear-eyed about the problems plaguing Mexican immigrants working in kitchens all across the United States, the chef is quick to note that there’s more good in the food industry than people realize.
Santibañez’s positive yet realistic outlook has been shaped by his many years in the food world. Born and raised in Mexico City, Santibañez studied classic French cuisine at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, worked as the executive chef of the Henbury Estate in Cheshire, England, and opened a slew of Mexican eateries in both his native country and the United States.
In the latest edition of Voices in Food, the 56-year-old tells Anna Rahmanan about the changes he still hopes to witness, what makes Mexican food so special and the uncanny ability of a restaurant to unite people of all sorts.
It’s amazing how in cities like New York, people now know so much more than they used to about traditional Mexican food. In the old days, they thought it just had to do with red sauce and cheese. Nowadays, everybody understands more.
Mexican food is all about the flavor profiles, the heat and the complexity of flavors that are also very accessible. It’s very different from the complexity of flavors of Indian cooking, for example. The latter is sometimes a little too overwhelming. Mexican food is more approachable than other cuisines.
Another thing that makes Mexican food so special is that it is so dynamic. It’s not like French cuisine, which for a long time was parked in this scenario of the chefs’ sauces and the chefs’ mothers’ sauces and other classic stuff. Mexican cooking is in constant motion. It’s constantly open. People are constantly making mixings and getting more ingredients from other communities and incorporating them in their dishes.
On issues that immigrants face in restaurant kitchens
I don’t think who is president makes a difference [in the grand scheme of things]. Changes take generations, so I don’t think a single presidential term will make a difference, but of course there are issues that Mexican people deal with in kitchens that their white counterparts don’t contend with.
“There is no restaurant or hotel in this country where people will tell you they don’t like their Mexican employees. That’s because they work so hard for their money just to prove they can.”
Immigrants come and fight probably harder than others. They work so hard to prove themselves and say, “I am as worthy as everybody else is.” And it’s very clear that America has embraced that. There is no restaurant or hotel in this country where people will tell you they don’t like their Mexican employees. That’s because they work so hard for their money just to prove they can.
There has got to be some sort of change coming in terms of immigration, though. We’ve been talking about it for years. Perhaps another big lottery? It has to happen and it hasn’t happened for many terms — not under President Obama or President Trump or, likely, President Biden. It hasn’t happened for centuries, and it is desperately needed. Especially when looking at the matter as a person from another country, it is interesting. There is no way that you could live illegally in my country, for example. Because for every step you take in your life, you need your social security card or federal ID. You cannot open a bank account in Mexico without it or sign a lease without it. But in America, you can. It is so easy to live here illegally, it is the easiest thing for everyone to do.
On the future of restaurants after the pandemic
There are a lot of people that believe the restaurant world is going to change, but I don’t think it’s ever going to. The response that we are seeing now after the pandemic and the restrictions being lifted is amazing. Restaurants are so full of people that want to sit down next to each other and chat and drink and people-watch. I now have proof that we are so social.
“There is so much good already in our industry, it is unbelievable.”
In New York, they now sell dumplings via vending machine, and I think it’s fine and fun, but it is not going to replace the restaurant. Nothing beats having a drink with a friend and breaking bread. I don’t think it’s going to change that much.
Generally, I think Mexican immigrants that are working in the kitchens serve the people in their community and need to be recognized. I think that, in general, a lot of Americans do recognize them, tip them and tell people about the good service. One of our kitchens is slightly open to the patrons that walk by because it connects one dining room to the other and almost every person that passes by stops by the kitchen and says, “Thank you guys!” It’s so nice. There is so much good already in our industry, it is unbelievable.