Silvana Salcido Esparza
A WINDING ROAD TO CULINARY SUCCESS
Silvana Salcido Esparza, known to many as a “badass” chef who stood up to our former sheriff and is not afraid to speak her mind, is actually a late bloomer. Although she had many successes around the country in jobs ranging from banking to sales and entrepreneurship, it wasn’t until she found her way to food that she had her most meaningful results.
Born into a family of bakers who can trace their connection to the food business back at least 800 years, Esparza’s early years were spent toying with food but not thinking seriously about going into the family business. As many young people do, she set off to be on her own.
She traveled east to work in a bank and then in sales for a cosmetics company. Always the dreamer and conjurer of ideas, even while working at these jobs she started her own cleaning business because it looked simple enough. And it was, for her. She observed others and jumped in.
“I’m a by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of person. If I see something I want or want to do, I go for it,” Esparza says. And go for it she did, making her cleaning business a success.
When she returned to her parents’ bakery in Merced, California some years later, she had the idea to offer lunch meals for the nearby workers. “I knew how to cook simple foods so we offered red and green chili, carnitas and menudo.” Because her food was popular, people started asking her to cater. It was then that Esparza realized she needed to know more about the food business and about cooking so she made the decision to go to culinary school. She moved to Phoenix in 1996 to attend Scottsdale Culinary Institute.
Why Phoenix? “New York was too far and there weren’t many other options nearby. I was afraid I’d lose myself in San Francisco so I chose Phoenix.” It proved to be a fortuitous decision for her and for Phoenix because Esparza’s culinary concepts have helped to put Phoenix on the foodie map.
I first met Esparza in 1996. I was teaching nutrition to culinary students at Scottsdale Community College. Nutrition was not the most popular course at the school. As far as these students were concerned, butter was king and they did not want to hear about the dangers of saturated fat. Mostly they sat obediently during my lectures counting the minutes until they could return to their knives and the stove while I rambled on about fruits and vegetables.
Esparza came to class not necessarily ready and willing to learn about using tofu to make mayonnaise but she was always cheerful and engaging. I just liked her. The other students liked her. The faculty liked her. I guess we saw something in her that people are still seeing to this day. It’s what people sometimes refer to as charisma. But could she cook?
We kept in touch after she graduated. You might say I followed her career. She worked with Christopher Gross and for Aramark at the Convention Center and as the sous chef at The University Club. One day she called and asked me to meet her at a broken-down restaurant on 16th Street just south of Thomas. She was somewhat secretive and I was leery but I went because of our friendship. The place was a disaster. As a longtime Phoenix resident, I knew the location as a once-popular Italian restaurant that had closed a while back. Since that time, at least one other restaurant had occupied the spot but now it was a vacant mess.
“I had a vision as I was driving down 16th Street,” she told me. A vision? The place called to her. She felt something as soon as she got inside. I didn’t feel it. I saw garbage and vermin. She saw potential. I believed in her because, well, because I did. To this day I’m not certain that Esparza knew what she wanted to do in that spot. Remember, by her own admission she flies by the seat of her pants.
A while after she graduated from Scottsdale Culinary Institute and with a bit of experience under her belt and before she had her vision, Esparza applied for and was granted an International Association of Culinary Professionals Scholarship to travel and study food. Of course she went to Mexico, the land of her family.
Because Esparza wanted the money to last, she chose to backpack through Mexico rather than hang out in big cities in fancy hotels eating at trendy restaurants. “I went deep into the jungle. I spent time with locals, learning their recipes. I ate foods I had never tasted or seen before. The trip changed my life.”
Silvana returned home to Phoenix with a desire “to disprove the myth that Mexican food is all about chips and salsa, yellow cheese and chimichangas.”
“I wanted to serve people real Mexican food. Although we had plenty of great restaurants here serving one style of Mexican food heavily influenced by the American Southwest, I wanted to introduce people to the food I had eaten backpacking my way through Mexico.”
After returning to the States and working for awhile, Esparza had her vision on 16th Street and the idea for Barrio Café was born in 2002. She and her partner, Wendy Gruber, worked day and night to clean up the truly battered space and get Barrio Café ready for opening. They scraped and painted. They laid tile. They scrubbed. Relatives sewed curtains. Esparza’s brother worked on the construction. I brought sandwiches.
How do you explain to people who are accustomed to the typical Mexican food served throughout the Valley that there are no chips and salsa, no beans and rice, no yellow cheese, no chimichangas. It was a little rough going those first few weeks. Some people actually did get up and leave when they found out there were no chips and salsa.
But it was Esparza’s guacamole that placated most people and kept them coming back. And the cochinita pibil. And the mole. And the huge assortment of tequilas. In short, it didn’t take long for the foodie community, those who appreciate quality food, to come around to her brand of “Modern Mexican Cuisine.”
The restaurant is in what was at that time a less-than-desirable neighborhood. Esparza along with local artist Moises decided to beautify what were normally graffiti-vandalized walls around the neighborhood. That idea blossomed into some of the best public artwork in Phoenix.
Esparza is a woman proud of her Mexican heritage. She is known around town not just for her tantalizing culinary accomplishments but also for her commitment to fairness and equality. She has been an outspoken advocate for all citizens, especially for those of Mexican heritage. Esparza does not pay lip service but puts herself on the line when she sees injustice.
What started as a small restaurant in a rundown area of town has blossomed into a small empire for Esparza’s family. There are four restaurants now: Barrio Café (the original), Barrio Café at the airport, Barrio Café Gran Reserva and Barrio Urbano at the Yard. As Esparza’s business grew, she slowly started to bring family members from far and wide on board. With a promise of training by such a well-respected chef, her family has been more than happy to move here to work under her tutelage.
About two years ago, Esparza started to feel tired. At first she thought it was just the daily grind of running restaurants so she retreated to her home in Rosarita, Mexico, to rest. In the past Rosarita had always recharged her when she was worn out, but it soon became apparent that it was more than simple exhaustion. After many medical tests and misdiagnoses, the doctors determined that Esparza has sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that can affect multiple organs. Esparza did not seem to be a prime candidate for sarcoidosis: The disease most often appears in 20- to 40-year-olds (she was older) and is much more common in African Americans than any other group (Esparza identifies as Mexican).
So Esparza set out to discover why she got the disease, first by having her DNA analyzed and then by following the trail of her ancestry. She discovered that she did indeed have African DNA in her family history and has thus far managed to trace her family back to Mocteczuma. She is a blend, as most of us are. It’s been a great journey for Esparza to trace her family back so far because she has found many distant relatives to connect with who, as it happens, are in the food business. She now knows that working with food is indeed in her DNA.
There is no cure for sarcoidosis although following good health practices like sleeping, exercising and eating well are obviously important. In addition to a healthy lifestyle, prednisone is often used to treat the painful episodes that many patients suffer. Although Esparza has had pain and fatigue she has chosen instead to work on changing her lifestyle rather than resort to medications that have their own side effects. In doing so, she’s changed her diet considerably and now follows a mostly “clean” diet avoiding processed foods and concentrating on a plant-based diet (something this dietitian taught her way back when!).
It was this lifestyle change that gave her the idea to open a new restaurant (to be called Nopalero) that focuses on healthier fare, or what she calls “conscious eating.” Sure, there are plenty of those. But not with the flavor profile of Mexican food as conceived by this five-times James Beard best chef nominee. Nopalero is not yet open. It’s still in the planning stages, although Esparza did debut some of the dishes at Phoenix’s Tacolandia this past winter. They were among the most popular at the event.
Having what can be a debilitating disease has not slowed her down. Esparza is a little more mindful of her physical needs and takes the time to rest and smell the roses a little bit more than before. Her wife, Jo, is the family cook and Jo makes sure that Esparza eats what’s good for her. “Jo is my rock. She makes sure I am well taken care of and she makes certain that I do what I have to do to stay healthy.”
After all, Silvana Salcido Esparza is a woman on a mission—a mission to change the way people think about Mexican food. She has to stay healthy to make sure that vision is realized.
(original and airport locations)
2814 N. 16th St.
Phoen ix, AZ 85006
Sky Harbor Airport
Phoenix, AZ 85034
Barrio Café Gran Reserva
1301 W. Grand Ave.
Phoen ix, AZ 85007
Barrio Urbano at the Yard
5632 N. 7th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85014