Carlos Gaytan: The First Mexican Chef Ever To Receive A Michelin Star
Carlos Gaytan was born and raised in Huitzuco, Guerrero, population 16,000.
Like many struggling, hustling families, Carlos' mother Tere sold food to make ends meet. He grew up working in the family taco spot, telling The National:
“I started cooking when I was really young, helping my mother who had a little taco place in Guerrero. I was probably eight years old and I’d be cutting tomatoes or frying tortillas, whatever was needed.”
From his tío, Carlos learned the art of barbacoa - how to dig the pit, slaughter the goat, prepare the meat. "We had some land on the edge of town where we barbecued," Carlos told Vice's Munchies. "You've got to start at 9 or 10 at night, and then come back at 7 in the morning to have everything ready and able to be sold."
People would come from miles around for a bite Tere's crispy chicken tacos with salsa verde, aguacate, and sour cream. Still, it wasn't enough to keep the family afloat, so Carlos decided to head p'al Norte to make some real money to help his family.
At 20 years old, Carlos took the first game-changing step toward Los Estados Unidos - he had no idea that he'd one day have his own famous, Michelin-star restaurant.
Carlos had a cousin in Chicago, so that's where he went. He needed a job, so he got one, washing dishes at the Sheraton.
But Carlos' didn't stop there, he started coming in early and working for free so that the chefs would teach him their craft. Then the head chef asked Carlos to leave. The National quotes him: "I’ve taught you everything I know, so we’ve got to look for a place for you to learn.”
Carlos went on to learn French cuisine from the Union League Club of Chicago, where he prepared a 600-person dinner for the French Embassy. The dinner was such a hit that a well-known French restaurant asked him to be their executive chef - a Mexican executive chef at a French restaurant!
That's when the idea for Mexique was born - Carlos' French-Mexican fusion restaurant.
With just a couple grand in savings and donated kitchen equipment, Carlos opened his restaurant - and people were immediately intrigued. A Mexican restaurant without guacamole or margaritas??? Impossible. But Carlos wanted to show Americanos that Mexican food isn't just "tacos, tortas, and fajitas." (Although they are a bomb part of it.)
Carlos was getting praise, winning awards, and working late into the night...but anyone who has ever opened and run their own business, especially a restaurant, knows that it's a struggle. In 2012, Carlos was at the end of the line; he was going to have to shut the doors on Mexique.
Then, the very week he was closing the restaurant, Carlos got the call. He told The National:
“I was going to close the restaurant that Friday...then I got a phone call telling me I won [the Michelin star]. They’d been following me since I opened, loved everything I do, and I was going to become the first Mexican – the first Latino – to get it [...] The next day, news reporters started calling me from all over the world and the day after that, the reservations line started ringing nonstop.”
Since then, Carlos has been on Top Chef and Master Chef Mexico and opened a new restaurant, Ha at Hotel Xcaret on the Riviera Maya.
And he still goes home to visit and cook with his mother, Tere. But, “She is the boss,” he tells The National. “I’m basically taking notes all the time." Despite his international reputation, Carlos never forgets where and how he got his start in life.
Last year, Carlos told Munchies:
"Mexicans—we're people who are honorable and hard-working, but we need leaders who dare to try things. When I got to Chicago I saw a lot of [people who were afraid] to dream, to dare to grow, [or] to believe in [their] talents. We all have some talent [...] if you dare to grow and you work hard, you can do whatever you want."
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Mexique recently closed its doors. "It’s out of my hands,” Carlos told the Chicago Tribune earlier this summer. According to the Tribune, Mexique is owned by Carlos’ ex-wife, Iliamar. “I don’t know what her plans are,” he told the Tribune reporter. “It’s my ex-wife’s decision. But I’m not there anymore.” Pero Carlos no se da por vencido; he has plans to re-open in the near future. "I’m excited to look for another location and continue, hopefully, very soon. Maybe late this year or early next year.” Buena suerte Carlos!