JS: What time is the sun coming up these days?
Maro: Around 6am.
JS: What time is it now?
Maro: It’s 4:45am.
Julia Sherman: Do you buy the pig already broken down?
Maro: Yes, with how much I already work I don’t have the time to break down the pig myself. I’m at Laja from 8am to 5pm Monday through Friday. On the weekend I have to be up at 2 am to start the fire for the carnitas. Today, I prepared 200kg of carnitas and they will sell out.
JS: What are you going to do with the head?
Maro: At Laja, Rafa serves suckling pig but he doesn’t use the heads, so sometimes I’ll prepare them and put them out on a platter with the carnitas.
JS: Where do you get the tortillas for the tacos?
Maro: Right next door. The delivery boy comes through with them at around 5am while they are still nice and hot.
JS: Do you have to marinate the meat beforehand?
Maro: No, with carnitas, the meat is completely plain, just salted.
My dad would add up to a kilogram of salt to this amount of meat, and it wouldn’t end up tasting salty. I don’t know how he did it. It’s the technique of the maestro. It’s complicated seasoning, as opposed to when you’re making a broth, you can taste as you go along and adjust the salt, but with this, you can’t because it’s cooking in a huge vat of pure lard. I’ll save the lard and reuse it for a month, maybe a month and a half.
JS: So your dad taught you how to make carnitas?
Maro: Yes, my father taught us how to make birría, carnitas, barbacoa, consume, menudo; traditional Mexican food. Food that people like.
JS: When did your dad retire and pass the stand on to you?
Maro: This month it’ll be 2 years. Before that my father had been making carnitas here for 12 years. I have a hard time getting up this early. Sometimes I can’t sleep, or I’m afraid I won’t wake up on time.
[Shining the head lamp into the pot] See, now the carnitas are starting to get this nice reddish color. If you don’t cook them with enough heat they end up looking white and if you cook them with too much heat, they can end up chewy. It’s a balance.
JS: Do you think your dad would be angry if you stopped making carnitas on the weekend, since you work full time as the gardener at Laja?
Maro: It was hard at first when my father left me with the stand. I struggled for about 2 months until I started to get the hang of it. But yes, he would be angry if I didn’t keep up with the tradition. He thinks my carnitas are good!
Julia Sherman: Now Rafa, what did you do before you were a cook?
Rafa Magaña: I used to be a contractor. I was thin then. When I first started as a cook at Laja, I was in it for the money. Like most people of my social class, I had no idea what this world of fine dining was about. I did not understand how anyone would eat Jair’s [Chef/Owner of Laja] food. But when I saw our first guest enjoy their meal, my whole mentality changed. I was hooked.
JS: And how did you advance yourself from entry level kitchen staff to be the Chef de Cuisine?
RM: I have always been a hard worker. If another worker earned 600 pesos a day, I would earn 1,200. When Jair would ask me to cook fillets in 30 seconds, my response was, “I’m going to do it 20!” During the first six months that I worked at Laja, I came early in the morning to open the restaurant with just one helper. When Jair arrived, I made sure his station was organized, his knife cleaned, everything was set-up. I knew exactly what he needed.
JS: And he was a mentor to you?
RM: He taught me everything. Then, Jair decided he was going to leave the restaurant with me in charge. I was extremely nervous to be left alone. The clients worried that the restaurant would not be the same without him. But then, they came, they tasted the food, and were surprised to find that it was identical. This is how people started to hear about me. They knew my name but not my face.
JS: Your relationship with Jair sounds like one you would have with a family member?
RM: Jair is really more of a brother than a friend. I have been taking care of this business for many years, and we still have the same pans, knives and everything from when we first opened.
I do this out of love, and I stayed for him, but also because I need to support my family, the family of my cousin, my brother, and my nephew. We all know what we need to do.
JS: The culture of this kitchen feels different from others. It’s convivial, fun, everyone is in it together.
RM: We don’t yell at each other, we try to teach each other calmly and patiently. Working within the family has made things much easier. Maro, my brother, has been here for 9 years, my cousin has been here for 9 years, and my nephew has been here for 4 years. This kind of stability has allowed us to establish a work environment.