I grew up in a small countryside village outside Guadalajara, Mexico. I was three years old when I started helping my mom in the kitchen. She desperately needed assistance in the kitchen to cook for our family of eleven children. I was the third-youngest and I instinctively knew my mom needed help in the kitchen to cook for my brothers and sisters. My father was useless around the house. He worked during the day, and drank at night. The vato loved his tequila.
My mom was the best of the best. She made any sacrifice required for our family to eat something every night. My mom only served herself dinner after us kids had eaten and if any food was miraculously left over. She was the backbone of our family, and my heart and soul.
My mom passed away when I was 16 years old. I could live one-hundred life times, and I would never get over losing her. I remember every word of our last conversation.
“Cesar, my time here on earth is soon coming to an end,” my mom said.
“I know, mama,” I responded, tears running down my face.
“Promise me that you will work hard, and follow your dreams,” she said, caressing my hand. ”Shoot for the stars, mijo (my son). Don’t be afraid to fail because even if you fail, I will still love you.”
“I promise, mama. I will work hard, and I will make you proud. One day mama, I want to be the best chef in the world!” I said with a sense of pride and naive optimism.
“That’s wonderful, mijo,” my mom said, with a brief pause to catch her breath. “Also, remember don’t sacrifice your dignity and your morals to get ahead, or to become rich. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. You can’t live a rich life without dignity,” my mom said, sounding more like a prophet than my mother.
“I understand, mama” I responded, tearfully.
Two days later, she passed away.
The following year, I left home for good. I couldn’t live in the same house with my father any longer. I moved to the resort town of Puerto Vallarta to look for work. When I arrived in Puerto Vallarta, I was overwhelmed, and scared. Puerto Vallarta was a big city to my small countryside village eyes.
Right away, I found a job as a dishwasher at the most popular taqueria (taco restaurant) in Puerto Vallarta. Tourists would travel from all parts of the world just to eat at our taqueria. Of course, my boss was very proud of his taqueria, and I felt honored to work for such a special establishment.
Every day, I worked hard. My boss was pleased with my work ethic. I loved working at the taqueria, and I often wondered if my mom would be proud of me if she were still alive.
I had been working at the taqueria for a little over a year when my boss promoted me to carnicero (the person who prepared and cooked the meat).
“Cesar, you do very good work around here,” my boss said affectionately. “I want to give you more responsibility. From now on, you will be responsible for all meat preparations and grilling. Think you can handle it?”
“Patron (boss), I love to cook. I’ve been helping in the kitchen since I was three-years-old. I would be honored to cook here at your taqueria!” I said, thinking and wishing my mom was still alive so I could give tell the good news. I was on top of the world.
My boss personally trained me. He carefully explained every detail of his recipes to me and demonstrated his self-taught culinary techniques. I loved learning from him. I was living my dream.
Every day. I woke up early to marinade the meat. In the afternoons, I operated the grill — 12 hours a day, 7 days a week . Everyone in Puerto Vallarta worked a similar schedule. I heard that in the United States, people worked 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and Saturdays and Sundays were days to rest. Such a blessed life, I thought. One day, I would love to live in the United States.
Our taqueria was always very busy. Everyday, customers waited at least two hours to feast on our food. The customers stood in long lines that wrapped around the entire block until they were seated at a table. My boss was a local celebrity. I was very fond of him. He was the father, I always wanted.
A couple years had gone by, the lines of customers were noticeably shorter. Then one day the lines completely disappeared. The tourists no longer visited Puerto Vallarta due to local drug cartel activities. They didn’t feel safe here anymore.
During this time, the restaurant suffered miserably.
“I may be forced to close the business, if things don’t pick up soon,” my boss said, his voice cracking.
My boss was a great person. My core ached to see him suffer like this. I would do anything to help him and his business.
As days went by, the bills piled up. My boss paid the bills from his personal savings account now. The business had no money and he was on the verge of going broke.
One day, my boss asked me to accompany him on a walk.
“Cesar, I have very bad news. I’m closing the taqueria next week. I can’t afford it anymore,” he said, gently placing his hand on my shoulder. “I can get you a job at another taqueria in town, if you like.”
“Sure patron, but only if your taqueria is closed for good. I’m not leaving your side until then,” I said.
“Cesar, another thing, you need to start thinking about your future,” my boss sternly said.
I interrupted, “I want to be the best chef in the world, and cook for wealthy people in the United States.”
“If you want to be the best, you must train under the best. You would need to attend a culinary school in the U.S. to learn from the best.
“You mean learn from Aaron Sanchez, the guy on Chopped?” I excitedly responded.
“No, Rick Bayless. The gringo. He’s the best,” my boss responded, trying to lighten things up. “Just kidding. In all seriousness, if you want to be the best chef, you need to learn other styles and techniques from around the world. There’s an amazing culinary school in the U.S. called CIA that can provide you the training you need,” my boss said.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept mentally rewinding the discussion with my boss. I would love to go to culinary school in the U.S, but how? I had very little money. I couldn’t afford to travel to United States and I absolutely could not afford to attend a prestigious culinary school.
Two days later, my boss excitedly ran through the front doors of the taqueria.
“I have wonderful news! The owner of Chipotle, the biggest Mexican food restaurant chain in the United States, is currently touring all of Mexico. He is searching for Mexico’s best burrito and wants to add it to the Chipotle menu. He’s ventured into every corner of Mexico looking for that special, one-of-a-kind recipe” my boss said, beaming ear to ear. “I got a call from his secretary, and he’s coming to our taqueria! The best part is that he will pay one million U.S. dollars to buy the exclusive rights of the recipe. This would save our business forever!”
The entire staff yelled and jumped as high as they could into the air. A couple of the guys even cried.
A special buzz was in the air throughout the taqueria. Everyone worked harder, laughed louder, smiled wider, and cooked better. This was a day to remember. We struggled for many months, and we needed this good news.
Before we went home that evening, my boss had another announcement, “By the way, the gentleman from Chiptole will be here tomorrow at 19:00 to sample our burritos. I’m closing the restaurant to the public tomorrow, so we can concentrate on preparing the best burritos we ever made!”
I had one evening to mentally prepare for an opportunity of a lifetime. I thought about all of the possibilities. If the American loved our food, maybe he would take me to the United States to cook for his restaurant. I was very excited. My dreams were coming true.
That night, I barely slept. I was too anxious.
The next day, I was the first person to arrive at the taqueria.
The refrigerator door was wide open. A dull stench filled the air. To my utmost dismay, I realized that I forgot to close the refrigerator door the night before. The meat for today’s special guest was ruined!
“Oh no! What am I going to do now!” I said, crying and panicking.
I could not believe I could be so damn stupid. I’d never forgotten to close the refrigerator door until last night. I was devastated.
I tried to collect my frazzled wits. What should I do? Should I call my boss? Should I call our meat supplier? I was in shock, but I had to something. Anything. The rest of the guys would arrive soon.
To clear my head, I walked outside to our outdoor seating area in front of the taqueria. I needed some air. I plopped myself down at one of our tables and sat there with a blank stare.
A black cat slowly wandered toward me across our busy street. What a beautiful cat, I thought. So sleek and at complete ease with its surroundings. At that exact moment, a car zoomed by and smashed the cat like a pancake.
The car didn’t stop. The driver sped on as nothing happened. I leaped from my chair, and chased the car on foot. I ran about half of a kilometer, before I stopped to catch my breath.
I ran back to the spot where I last saw the black cat. To my disbelief, the cat was still alive. The car crushed the cat’s hind legs, and it dragged itself across the street to safety. It was saddest thing I had ever seen. The poor cat still had the will to live. The most horrific screams wailed from the cat’s little lungs. The cat cried to me for help. I picked up the poor cat. Its entire body quivered violently. I had never seen anything suffer this type of pain.
“I can’t allow this poor cat to suffer,” I whispered to myself.
With the cat cradled in my arms, I briskly carried it to the alley behind the taqueria.
“I’m sorry my little friend. I have to do something very bad to you, but I hope your pain and suffering will soon stop.”
With a whack of a machete across its neck, I ended the cat’s life.
As I stared down at the cat’s headless body, thoughts of my own tragic situation reemerged back into my mind.
No ideas how to solve my hopeless dilemma. I still had no meat to serve our special guest. I couldn’t call the boss, the news would break his heart. I couldn’t call the meat supplier, not enough time to place an order.
As I spun a wheel of solutions in my head, I remembered a story my mom told me as a kid. Her grandmother burnt the rabbit meat that she planned to include in a rabbit stew. She didn’t confess the bad news to my grandfather, instead she killed and cooked a neighborhood stray cat for my grandfather’s stew. At the end of the meal, my grandfather said, “That was the best rabbit stew I ever had. The rabbit meat was exquisite!” My grandmother never told my grandfather the truth about that stew.
I slowly turned my head and glanced at the cat’s lifeless body. I single thought entered my mind; marinate and grill the cat.
As I skinned the smooth, almost silky, black fur from the cat, I prayed and prayed for forgiveness. I removed the cat’s lean flesh from its bone, and marinated its meat in the taqueria’s homemade marinade.
At this time, the staff started to trickle into the taqueria. Everyone beamed with excitement.
My boss then walked in to the taqueria.
“How are the preparations going, Cesar?” my boss cheerfully asked.
“Fine, patron. The meat is marinating.” I responded, feeling damn guilty.
The meat marinated all day. I stared at the meat a lot. I couldn’t believe what I was doing. Was I really going to serve a cat-filled burrito to another human being?
As 19:00 approached, the taqueria looked incredible. Beautifully decorated and exquisitely cleaned. No detail was too small that day. Every napkin folded perfectly. Each fork and knife were set in their rightful places on the tables.
The meat was almost done marinating. It was time to cook. I had never cooked cat meat before so I wasn’t sure about the required cook time or correct temperature. I had to wing it.
I put the meat on the grill just as our special guest from the U.S. walked through the door. My boss happily greeted him at the door.
My boss and the special guest spoke like old friends.
“How much longer until the burritos are ready, Cesar?” my boss asked.
“Five minutes, patron,” I responded.
I pulled the meat from the grill and it looked remarkably tasty, and smelled exquisite. I forgot it was cat meat for a couple of seconds. I carefully drizzled the meat into the tortillas one by one. I carefully prepared three burritos for our special guest.
“Sir, I hope you enjoy our special burritos!” I said, serving Mr. Chipotle. My hand trembled as I slid the burritos onto the table.
I almost fainted as our guest took his first bite. He chewed for an eternity, it seemed then eventually swallowed. He gently placed his burrito back on the plate. He looked around the room, and made eye contact with a few of us who stood around the table. He expressed no emotion whatsoever. I was so scared. I had no idea what he would say or do next.
“I have to be honest, this is the best damn burrito I have ever had in my life!” our special guest said enthusiastically. “This burrito contains so many rich flavors, I never had anything like it before. You guys have hit a home run with this burrito! I gotta have this recipe!”
“I will pay you the $1,000,000.00 for the recipe!” our guest continued.
My boss looked at me with the biggest smile on his face, and said to me, “Go ahead. Tell him the recipe!”
I gulped, “Patron, I need to tell you something.”
To be continued…