Chef to Celebrate Anthony Bourdain with Barbacoa-Topped Dia de Los Muertos Altar
When chef Luis Arce Mota moved from Mazatlán, Mexico, to New York City in search of work, he didn't speak any English. “I needed a job to survive and knew that if I went to work in a restaurant, I would at least have something to eat,” he says.
Undeterred by the language barrier or lack of connections, he began his career in the early '90s as a dishwasher and slowly rose in the ranks, working under chefs like César Ramirez, David Bouley, and Michael Romano. By 1998, he was staging at Brasserie Les Halles, the classic French restaurant made famous by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential. The memoir, published in 2000, was Bourdain’s brutally honest (and funny) account of what really transpires in restaurant kitchens. It was at Brasserie Les Halles where Mota met Bourdain, who died this June at the age of 61.
“Bourdain’s love for Mexicans was not new,” says Mota. “Even then he treated us all with respect, and you could see he had an admiration for us, the food, and the culture.” Mota describes a pre-fame Bourdain who was polite and joked with the staff. After realizing Mota’s last name translated into "marijuana" in English, Bourdain mimicked smoking a joint while the two shared a laugh.
Over the years, Bourdain’s appreciation for Mexico became well-documented through his hit CNN travel show Parts Unknown: a michelada in Tepito, tacos al pastor in Mexico City, mezcal in Tijuana. And in January 2018, Bourdain spoke out in support of Mexicans and immigrant restaurant workers. He lambasted the people who eat their food, employ them to watch their children, and enjoy their beaches, but still refuse to respect their basic humanity.
This fleeting interaction, along with Bourdain's continued public support of immigrants, left a lasting impact on Mota. So to honor him, the chef is dedicating his Dia de los Muertos ofrenda in La Contenta Oeste, in the West Village, to Bourdain. Another ofrenda will be built at Mota’s sister restaurant La Contenta, in the Lower East Side, dedicated to Pete Accurso, the late manager of The Back Room speakeasy.
The ritual of building an altar for loved ones who have died is an integral part of Day of the Dead traditions. The shrine is decorated with candles, the deceased's favorite foods, and cempasúchil flowers, which is believed to light the way home for the dead.
Barbacoa tacos and tequila reposado will be placed on the altar for Bourdain to enjoy when he revisits the land of the living. Carne asada tacos and mezcal will be left out for Accurso.
Mota is inviting first, second, and third graders from the Bronx and Greenwich Village to help build the installation. Many of them are not Mexican, but Mota believes it’s a good opportunity to expose young children to Mexico's traditions.
Guests are also invited to place a photo of their loved ones on the altar, and a special Dia de los Muertos menu will be offered at both of Mota’s properties. Expect seasonal offerings such as shrimp tamales, chicken enchiladas with mole, pan de muerto, and champurrado, a traditional corn-based hot chocolate.
“Mexicans work hard, and Anthony saw that,” says Mota. “This is just my way of saying thank you.”