Food brings Tennesseans together and serves as a way to celebrate the variety of cultures of its people. It’s a central part of how Chef Austin Garcia celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15–Oct. 15).
“Food was a big part of gatherings growing up in my small town in Mexico,” Austin says. “My grandma used to wake up at 4:30 in the morning to cook for the entire family. She made homemade tortillas every day. It was something so simple and so delicious. I’ve tried to do the same with my career. Creating food and feeding people feels special to me because it takes me back to what my grandma did for our family.”
After moving to Franklin, Tennessee at age 14, Austin started working in food trucks. He then went on to a variety of restaurants, including serving as the head chef at Frankin’s the Red Pony for 12 years. While there, the restaurant was one of four from the South invited to cook at the esteemed James Beard House. A little over a year ago, he and his partners opened their restaurant, West 22 Tacos in Murfreesboro.
“I worked in high-end restaurants for most of my career and had the opportunity to create a variety of menu items and work with a lot of interesting ingredients,” Austin says. “But I was always drawn back to making tacos. It was like being back home with my grandma.”
WellTuned spoke with Chef Garcia to find out more about how and why he celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month.
Why is it important to you to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month?
Garcia: I never want to forget where I came from because that’s who I am and that’s alw
ays going to be who I am. And it’s important to show the roots of our culture, where we come from, and what it’s like to go to a different country and get started with nothing. My wife came here when she was only two months old, so she doesn’t have the memories of Mexico that I do, but it’s just as important to her.
We have two daughters, so we use Hispanic Heritage Month to teach them about their roots, show them we’re grateful to be in this country, but we don’t want to forget where we came from.
How do you celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month?
Garcia: Mexican Independence Day is Sept. 16, so that’s the day we all get together. We break a pinata and we dress in traditional clothing like we did back in Mexico. And we create big meals to celebrate it as a family.
A year ago, I opened my restaurant on Sept. 16 as part of our effort to celebrate our heritage. We opened it up without any advertising. My aim was to serve the best food that we could. I thought if we did a couple hundred dollars a day in business, I’d be fine with that. The first weekend we ran out of food!
What foods are typical of your celebration?
Garcia: As you might imagine, tacos are huge for me. That’s what I grew up eating every day in Mexico. Mexican street corn is one of my favorite things. I also love mole, which is a very traditional sauce in Mexico and Birria, which is a traditional stew dish. Obviously, all kinds of salsas and homemade tortillas are a must for celebrating Hispanic Heritage month.
My grandma made a delicious street corn salad. I think is goes with the Hispanic Heritage Month celebration and serves as a nice, healthy dish.
Chef Garcia’s Street Corn Salad
6-8 ears of sweet corn
1 cup cotija cheese or queso fresco
2 oz Valentina hot sauce
2 limes (juice)
½ cup mayo
½ bunch of chopped cilantro
Micro greens as a garnish (optional)
1 serrano pepper (with or without seeds depending on how spicy you want it)
2 garlic cloves
2 limes (juice)
1 bunch of cilantro
½ cup water
Fill a large pot with water ¾ of the way full, add 1T salt, 1T sugar, and corn on the husk, boil for 12-15 min set aside to cool down. Meanwhile in a large bowl combine the mayo, hot sauce, lime juice, and chopped cilantro, mix well. Once the corn ears are cooled down, cut the kernels off.
To make the salad: in a bowl combine the corn, ½ cup of cheese, the mayo sauce, and mix well.
In a blender combine avocado, serrano, cilantro, lime juice, garlic, water, salt, and pepper. Blend on high until smooth. (If needed add additional water to blend well)
On a serving platter or a large plate, spoon salsa into the plate, top with corn salad, cheese, croutons, and micro greens.
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