For chef and author Bricia Lopez-Maytorena, it's a matter of respect.
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Three tacos on a plate
Credit: Claudia Totir / Getty Images

When Bricia Lopez-Maytorena was on the Chicago leg of her tour for Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, a group of attendees migrated one block down the street after the event wound down. They settled in at La Josie, a Mexican restaurant in the trendy (and expensive) West Loop neighborhood, where the tortillas are handmade on-site and the menu lists a trio of carne asada tacos for $19, without sides. The group blanched at the prices and opted for lower-ticket items.

Then Lopez-Maytorena walked into the same restaurant. The book she co-authored is the first U.S. cookbook on Oaxacan cuisine, written by a person from Oaxaca. She is also the co-owner of Guelaguetza — the Oaxacan restaurant in Los Angeles that won a James Beard Award in the prestigious American Classics category in 2015. At the event, an attendee had asked her how they could better support Mexican purveyors. Lopez-Maytorena responded by saying Mexicans have to be the first to be willing to pay for the cost of goods. If they do not, they signal to others that the products are not worth the asking price. Her message was clear: Change begins within a community. The room of predominantly Latinx attendees nodded their heads in agreement when she said as consumers, they should be willing to pay what a maker prices their items.

At this restaurant, seeing this ideology put to the test, Lopez-Maytorena challenged the group on their thought process when individuals justified their actions by saying "We can go down the street for something cheaper." "The cost doesn't include any sides." "It's just tacos." The restaurateur stood her ground and doubled down.

"How do you expect other cultures to value you if you don't value your own?" Lopez-Maytorena challenged the table. She is firm in her belief that Mexicans have to be the first ones to embrace the prices a maker sets and avoid calling the cuisine "cheap." The chef and cookbook author came to this conclusion after analyzing her own interactions with people who shared her heritage. 

"I saw the essence of being proud of who you are and being unapologetically you [when I met] a mezcal maker in Mexico," Lopez-Maytorena had said in her talk. "I was using fancy titles to describe him and he was like, 'No, I'm a farmer. Because I'm a farmer doesn't mean that the value of work is worth less. I don't have to have a fancy title for you to pay $150 for a mezcal. I should be a farmer and you should pay that to a farmer because our expertise is worth it.'"

Mexican food and beverage became synonymous with "cheap" in large part because within the culture itself, it's been underappreciated. But that's a way of thinking that's begun to change in recent years. Sofia Sada, Latin Cuisines Program Chef at The Culinary Institute of America, asserts that in Mexican culture, recipes passed down and perfected from one generation to the next are seen as a tool of survival and marker of the working class, rather than a precious cultural commodity that should be celebrated and persevered. In a phone call, Sada explained how in her native country of Mexico, the people who make a living by selling food often do so because they have no other career prospects. 

"The guy down the street who makes tacos does so because he didn't go to school," Sada said. "The perception is he makes a living doing something his mom taught him because he has no other skills. It's undervalued and under-respected."

This, Lopez-Maytorena says, is the problem and needs to change. She is calling for people to value the generational experience within their own community. Sada believes there is a lack of awareness among people who grow up on burgers, hot dogs and pizza around the difficulty of making Mexican food. This is changing with the rise of culinary schools on both sides of the border. Their increasing popularity has helped legitimize a career in food and educate a mass audience on the intricacies of each ingredient. For example, instructors teach the complex process of making a tortilla. A batch of tortillas for a night of service takes Hugo Ortega, the executive chef and owner of H Town Restaurant Group and 2017 James Beard Award, nearly 16 hours from start to finish.

Sada credits Enrique Olvera, owner and head chef of Pujol in Mexico City, with a global shift in attitude around Mexican food. The restaurant opened in 2000 and has been on the World's 50 Best Restaurant List since 2014. But Sada said the real tipping point for Mexican cuisine came when UNESCO named it to their Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2010. France was the only other country to receive the honor that same year. Three years later, Japan joined their ranks. Both French and Japanese cuisine are regarded as high-end dining options. They are also held as the standard for haute cuisine — so why shouldn't the same respect be extended to the only other cultural entity that shares this distinct honor? Lopez-Maytorena believes the time is now and the fight begins and ends within the Mexican community.

Mexicans who have heard her plea support the idea. However, as previously noted, she has found that it is still met with reservations when it is time for people to put their money where their mouth is. That changes when people hear her explain the higher pricing of goods is a symbol of self-acceptance. Lopez-Maytorena says it was when she embraced her identity, culture and ancestry that she became comfortable pricing herself in the same range as her peers who aren't cooking Mexican food. Finding respect for herself and her culture allowed her to demand it of others.

"We self-select ourselves out of places by refusing to value and support work associated with our culture," book tour attendee Lucía Angel said. She was not on board with Lopez-Maytorena's justification for $19 tacos until she heard the argument. "If we as Mexicans refuse to pay the price a Mexican eatery has established in order to operate in a pricey neighborhood and deliver on the quality, then we are signaling to others that they shouldn't either."

"The motive behind this concept isn't to get rich," Lopez-Maytorena said in a follow-up call. "It means I value myself enough to charge what [my goods] are worth."