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Diana Dávila: Making Space For Latinx Success In Restaurant Kitchens

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Zagat Stories asked Latinx chefs from across the United States about their experiences being Hispanic in the restaurant industry, how it has shaped them, and what needs work.

Chef Diana Dávila is executive chef and owner of Mi Tocaya Antojeria in Chicago. Dávila began working in her parents’ taqueria at age 10. She went to culinary school at Seasons of the Heart in Oaxaca, Mexico, and got started working at her family’s restaurant. From there, she went on to the acclaimed restaurants Butter and Boka in Chicago, followed by four years in Washington DC with restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum. She returned to Chicago to open Cantina 1910 in 2015, and then in 2017 opened Mi Tocaya Antojeria—her first restaurant as owner.

Someone—a white male—made a comment to me the other day. He said, “Hispanics dominate the restaurant industry.” And I said, “No we don’t. Just because there are a lot of Mexicans in the kitchen, that doesn’t mean we are running the industry.”

When I say that Latinx are the minority, I understand that there are many Latinx in the restaurant industry by sheer numbers. But we, the Latinx minority, are always having to answer up to a white boss.

It could be the owner, chef, or management—I think that almost every place I’ve ever been in had overwhelmingly white upper management. I am a first-generation Mexican immigrant and bilingual. Even for someone like me who doesn’t have an accent, you still get those types of little comments, from stereotypes to blatant racism. You get so used to it that you normalize it.

Mi Tocaya Antojeria interior. Photo: Jude Goergen.

There are a lot of assumptions made about Latinx because of our background, economic state, or history. People assume that my family is poor, that we come from nothing, that I was raised on a farm, or that my parents are migrant workers, are not educated, or don’t speak English. It wasn’t until I was into my 30s that I realized I let a lot of those comments slide—and that it was not right.

Upper management really needs to listen to minority groups and learn what is acceptable to say. Most of the time people just don’t know what they are saying or assuming is unfair—we are all products of our upbringing. Most people don’t know what it’s like to be an inner-city kid or from another cultural background, and you end up thinking that how you speak is the norm. But Latinx have to be brave enough to say that stereotypes and comments like that bother us.

Even Latino men and our community must work on this. We must work on machismo. I worked at a kitchen in Washington DC that was predominantly Latino men. They were treated like dogs by white upper management. I thought they would be happy to have a fellow Latina that spoke Spanish as their new leader. They blatantly told me, “We won’t listen to you because you are a woman, you are beneath us.” It took everything for me not to cry in front of them, so I went into the walk-in instead so they wouldn’t see my tears. No matter what background you are, women are always the most oppressed people.

No van a cambiar esto.

Photo: Jude Goergen.

I walked back in there and said “I don’t know what you have against me. And if you don’t want to do this, then we are going to have a problem.”

It was probably three years ago when the #MeToo movement was at its height when I really started thinking about who I was, and how I was treated. I’ve had people dramatically twitch at me when they learned that I, a Hispanic female, was to be their new boss. And I received zero support from white upper management—in fact, I was blamed for causing problems.

Am I supposed to educate everyone?

I’ve definitely been told to dumb down Mexican food—that Mexican food was “too much.” But now, when I write menus, I refuse to use French, Castellano, or English terminology to describe Mexican food, because we already have the terminology in our own language. People say they like Mexican food, but they don’t know what Mexican food is. All they know is tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. There is so much more, like delicious moronga, which is blood sausage. I was tired of people telling me “no” so often, or what to do with Mexican food, so I opened my own restaurant. I made my own “yes.”

Photo: Jude Goergen.

When I was younger, there was a pretty big divide between Latinx chefs—this gross mentality that there could only be “one” Latinx chef. My immigrant parents opened up their first taqueria because they wanted to manage and own their own business. But others within the community did not support them because they feared it would take away from their own business. They were received with such hostility. Por pinche no hacemos esas cosas.

But this is changing. I’ve been part of a Mexican chef networking group here in Chicago since my early 20s. Everyone genuinely supports each other, and all of us are doing different things. There was no sense of competition or jealousy. There is room for all of us. We want everyone who works for us to be better, because we want to be better. Some of my fellow group members include José Sosa, Jonathan Zaragosa, Manny Mendoza, and Danny Espinosa who was on Top Chef Mexico.

I’d like to see more opportunities given to Hispanic chefs. There are so many wildly talented people, but Mexican busboys, managers, and line cooks always lose opportunities to white people. If this doesn’t change, it will always be a revolving door. We need more accountability to give people opportunities.

Along with equal opportunity and accountability, we need to pay people fairly. A lot of people who don’t have citizenship get taken advantage of in the restaurant industry. They will get their hours adjusted. Say you worked 50 hours—management will put you down for 40 so they don’t have to pay undocumented workers as much. This country needs immigration reform.

In my kitchen, it is about who can do the job the best, no matter your background. Naturally, we are 99.9 percent Latinx at Mi Tocaya Antojeria, but it’s not because we’ve done that on purpose. It’s because we have a lot of either Mexican folx or Latinx who want to work there when we are open for a position. There’s a lot of common ground with food, language, and music. They find that sense of familiarity, like coming home to your mother at Mi Tocaya because of the cultural similarities. But we’ve had other cultures as well for us that have completely excelled and done great.

Photo: Jude Goergen.