Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local chefs.
Asked what he likes the most about America, Paco Garcia’s dark brown eyes divert to the left. But he doesn’t think more than a beat before he re-establishes eye contact and says, “The opportunities.”
Opportunity came for the Mexico City native and Con Huevos chef nine years ago when he was 17. He had recently relocated to the Louisville area to live with his father, who had long worked at a Mexican restaurant here called El Caporal.
The young Garcia was looking for a job when an acquaintance asked him, on Derby Day, if he wanted to wash dishes. The dishwasher at Mayan Café had not shown up for his shift, and Garcia’s own opportunity had come. Nine years later, he’s moved from a dishwasher to a cook to a head chef, and earlier this year he was named a semifinalist in the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Restaurant and Chef Awards.
In between, Garcia, 26, who has worked at Con Huevos for four years and almost since the restaurant opened, found himself working multiple jobs while also attending culinary school at Jefferson Community and Technical College.
But his position at Con Huevos has given him more time to himself. Having just one job, and not two or three, can do that for you. But in recent days and weeks, Garcia said he is using that time to simply be better. He’s determined to get back to focusing on himself rather than focusing all his attention on being a chef and perfecting recipes and processes.
“Sometimes as a cook, you are only growing in what you do every day, (and) you forget to be a person,” Garcia says. “You have to know how to respect people, how to understand people, how to listen to people. Con Huevos has given me the opportunity to have regular hours, and now I can have the whole cake.”
He speaks from a position of learning, having recently gone through a breakup with his girlfriend of two years. As he speaks about her, it’s clear his newfound focus is directly related to that relationship.
“She was one of the best girls,” he says, his eyes drifting left as he gathers words. “She is a very passionate, humble, caring person. She understood my career took a lot of time. But I forgot to care for her, and we just broke up.”
Chefs work notoriously long hours; in Louisville, they’re seen almost as celebrities. Garcia stresses that chefs are people just like everyone else. He admits that at times, he is still making the transition from a different culture than what he grew up with in Mexico.
He says the transition as a teenager was difficult and that he is still learning.
He admits communication can be a challenge for him, and that is one area in which he is striving to improve, much the way he constantly looks for ways to improve his recipes and kitchen processes. He says every Monday morning now he meets with one of his cooks over breakfast, asks them if they are happy, what he could do to be better, asks if they have ideas. It’s part of his becoming better. It’s part of the process of transitioning.
Something his ex-girlfriend told him sticks with him: “Never try to be understood when you should be understanding.”
He’s taken that advice to heart.
“Listen to people,” he says, explaining what it means to him. “It’s hard for me trying to understand, especially in my culture. I have worked for eight years constantly trying to improve. Sometimes I think I have built a personality of thinking I know everything, but I have to work to not let it be that. I’m trying to be better, trying to keep that in mind and be a human.”
This is likely why he downplays the Beard nomination. Right now, Garcia is trying focus on exercising, on reading books, on becoming the best person he can be, and put as much into that as he has put into being the best chef he can be. In fact, the honor of being a semifinalist in the Best Chef in the Southeast category, he says, at first made him a little insecure.
He and the Con Huevos owners and staff celebrated the honor at El Mundo, but for a time afterward — the announcement came back in the summer — Garcia says he tended to second-guess new recipes because he worries they will not live up to a standard he set for himself leading up to the Beard nomination.
“I feel lucky,” he says. “I have never been that person trying to achieve awards. I was more for the love of cooking. But that affected me. I always say the fame or recognition, I don’t think it is anything. At the end of the day, I’m a chef. I know how to cook. Sometimes the recognition is not as good as it looks like.”
Another aspect of his recent life that helped open his eyes was the sudden passing of his roommate’s 18-year-old brother. The teen also worked front of house at Con Huevos in Holiday Manor; he committed suicide, and Garcia admits he has had feelings of guilt, thinking maybe he could have taken more notice of the young man and what he might have been going through.
“It was tough,” Garcia says. “I could tell he was a little bit zoned out. He was always a quiet person. It was tough for all of us trying to work through that.”
So, balance is the goal — attention to career blended with attention to people. He never set out to be a chef, but he remembers his mother “always cooking with love for me.” That is no doubt part of why he loves what he does, why he likes to make other people happy with food.
Now, Garcia hopes to make people happy in other ways, starting with improving the way he interacts. He wants to take the opportunity to hear what others have to say, to understand what they are feeling.
“The last couple of months, I’ve been trying to talk to people about how to be a better human, about how to listen,” he says. “One of the things that’s been helping me is recognizing there’s going to be lessons for me that I will have to learn. There are things I can improve, especially knowing myself and accepting who I am and being secure.”
It’s a different kind of opportunity that presents itself to Garcia this time, one he seems determined to take advantage of. No regrets.