The Migrant Chef: The Life and Times of Lalo García (Hardcover)
A New Yorker Best Book of 2023 • An NPR 2023 "Books We Love" Pick
A chef’s gripping quest to reconcile his childhood experiences as a migrant farmworker with the rarefied world of fine dining.
Born in rural Mexico, Eduardo “Lalo” García Guzmán and his family left for the United States when he was a child, picking fruits and vegetables on the migrant route from Florida to Michigan. He worked in Atlanta restaurants as a teenager before being convicted of a robbery, incarcerated, and eventually deported. Lalo landed in Mexico City as a new generation of chefs was questioning the hierarchies that had historically privileged European cuisine in elite spaces. At his acclaimed restaurant, Máximo Bistrot, he began to craft food that narrated his memories and hopes.
Mexico City–based journalist Laura Tillman spent five years immersively reporting on Lalo’s story: from Máximo’s kitchen to the onion fields of Vidalia, Georgia, to Dubai’s first high-end Mexican restaurant, to Lalo’s hometown of San José de las Pilas. What emerges is a moving portrait of Lalo’s struggle to find authenticity in an industry built on the very inequalities that drove his family to leave their home, and of the artistic process as Lalo calls on the experiences of his life to create transcendent cuisine. The Migrant Chef offers an unforgettable window into a family’s border-eclipsing dreams, Mexico’s culinary heritage, and the making of a chef.
About the Author
Laura Tillman is a journalist and the author of The Migrant Chef and The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts. She began her career as a newspaper reporter at the U.S.–Mexico border in 2007, before moving to Mexico City in 2014. Her reporting, which focuses primarily on migration, justice, and food, has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Nation. She graduated from Vassar College with a degree in international studies and Goucher College with an MFA in nonfiction writing, where she is currently a member of the faculty. She lives in Mexico City with her family.
For her compelling, well-written biography of the chef and restaurateur Eduardo García, known as Lalo, the author spent five years reporting, researching and traveling . . . Threaded through [Lalo's] story and that of his family is in-depth information that broadens the scope of the book: Ms. Tillman discusses the history of Mexican food, farmworker conditions in the United States, Mexican politics and earthquakes, and the inequities and challenges of the restaurant business.
— Florence Fabricant - New York Times
A wonderful, amazingly written biography about this elite chef in Mexico City's world-class food scene. It's filled with so much drama, it needs no embellishment. But the author, Laura Tillman, just injects keen insight, a deft prose. And what I really loved was her fascinating historical context about Mexico, about Mexican food origins, cooking tips. You know, sometimes during the read, my mouth was watering, and my mind was fully satiated. Lalo had a very unconventional path to success—crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, working as a child migrant farm worker, being deported, spending time in prison. He also shared touching insights into his journey from poverty to privilege. And with Mexico City now this must-stop on the global food stage, Lalo's story is all the more engaging. It's timely, and it's tasty.
— Carrie Kahn - NPR Weekend Edition
Laura Tillman is known for precise features and reporting, rich in context and with color that transports any reader to the scene of the events. The Migrant Chef: The Life and Times of Lalo García, is a meticulous work that shows the true reality of Mexican fine dining and the life story of a complex man who redefined Mexican gastronomy after numerous setbacks.
— Ramón Barreto - Vogue México
This widely-ranging biography . . . evokes how even as Guzmán aims 'to hint, via an ingredient' or 'a geographic term,' at the history embedded in his menus, he is haunted by the inequities of haute cuisine, and by the circumstances that render locally sourced foods a luxury.
— The New Yorker
Once a child farmworker, Eduardo ‘Lalo’ García Guzmán rejects tidy narratives about immigration and the respectability Americans quietly demand of migrants. . . . García’s narrative is unconventional, as it documents his remarkable trajectory from child migrant worker to superstar chef. But it’s a rare extended look at how migrant workers form the backbone of American food systems. . . . Reporting rarely covers migrants’ lives post-deportation or highlights stories in which deportees not only find their footing in their home countries but perhaps even thrive.
— Tina Vasquez - Guardian
Rich and evocative . . . a very special [book].
— Mark Bittman - Food with Mark Bittman
Few personalities have had more impact on Mexico City's emergence as a foodie destination this century than Eduardo "Lalo" García. . . . The Migrant Chef provides a more hopeful tale of redemption through work and determined grit. . . . Tillman expertly weaves together Lalo's story and the past 40 years of U.S.-Mexico economic history.
— Dudley Althaus - The Houston Chronicle
Ultimately, García’s story of persistence, hard work, failure, and success presents a more nuanced portrait of unauthorized Mexican workers seeking a better life. . . . In The Migrant Chef, Tillman makes visible the hidden labor of upscale restaurant workers through the thin swinging kitchen door that separates them from the elite clientele they serve. Whether or not you travel to Mexico City to sample García’s creations, reading his story brings humanity, empathy, and understanding to the issue of the U.S.-Mexico border and the people and ideas traversing it.
— Kendra Nordin Beato - The Christian Science Monitor
Riveting . . . A fascinating and propulsive read . . . Ever ready with context, Tillman weaves in societal, historical and political background to show how migration is always a key factor in the development of food culture.
— John Kessler - Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Tillman's spellbinding story of this extraordinary chef and his journey is not to be missed.
— Enica Davis - Library Journal
There are countless stories of chefs, of apprenticeship, labor and talent, and a rise through the ranks until the years of work bloom into the full flower of an owned restaurant. Then there is Eduardo aka Lalo García's story, a singular epic worthy of cinematic telling, with a cruel twist, that also reveals a lot about us and the two countries—Mexico and the US—that shaped García.
— Evan Kleinman - KCRW's Good Food
Tillman’s book, The Migrant Chef: The Life and Times of Lalo García, is more than just the story of a chef’s journey from farmworker to the top of Mexico’s high-end dining scene. García’s journey intersects with every significant food-world issue of the last quarter century, from NAFTA and the rise of undocumented farmworkers in America to the local food movement, the age of celebrity chefs, and the Covid-era upheaval in the restaurant business.
— Brent Cunningham - The Food and Environment Reporting Network
Tillman is a meticulous and thorough researcher, as well as a beautiful writer. The result is a nonfiction book that reads like a novel.
— Cary Babour - WGCU's Gulf Coast Life Book Club
The late Anthony Bourdain once said that in his 30 years of cooking professionally, in every restaurant he stepped in it was always a Mexican cook who taught him the ropes. But their stories are rarely told. In 2016, Laura Tillman phoned Maximo Bistrot, the renowned Mexico City restaurant, to interview Chef Lalo Garcia hoping to write a story about the cooks and dishwashers struggling in a city rife with inequality. What resulted was five years immersed in Garcia’s world as he brought to life a story familiar to many who immigrated to the United States in search of opportunity.
— Josue Monroy - Good Times Magazine
In The Migrant Chef, five years of meticulous reporting passes into art. Laura Tillman illuminates not only the life of a remarkable chef but the world around him in which we all live.
— Suzannah Lessard, author of The Architect of Desire and The Absent Hand
What makes the internationally renowned Mexican chef known as “Lalo” so extraordinary is inseparable from what makes him so ordinary. His hardscrabble childhood in the Mexican countryside, the traumas and challenges of immigration, the unbreakable work ethic and personal values rooted in faith and family, a brave and resilient character, brought his very individual genius to full flower. Laura Tillman, an exceptionally observant and gifted writer, tells both stories, the extraordinary and the ordinary, with amazing vividness, drama, empathy, and understanding.
— Francisco Goldman, author of the Pulitzer-finalist novel Monkey Boy
The Migrant Chef tells the history of a culture and cuisine, and also the story of a gifted Mexican cook and his family, enduring and surmounting the toils and injustices of immigration to the North. The book has fascination, drama, and heart. It was a pleasure to read.
— Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains and Rough Sleepers
Laura Tillman's compelling chronicle of chef Lalo García's rise—and fall, and rise again—is a necessary respite from the well-worn path of celebrity-chef-as-hero. Best of all, layered between the stories of his struggles and successes, it offers a subtle indictment of the American dream. Highly recommended.
— Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating
Lalo is a true inspiration. His story will surely encourage every ambitious chef, whatever the challenges they may face and wherever they start from. That’s the magic of this story. The food scene thrives because of people like Lalo, and particularly here in Mexico, he is a great pride for us. He has proved the possibilities of doing truly great things in food, literally starting from scratch, in the most delicious ways.
— Gabriela Cámara, chef, restaurant owner, and author of My Mexico City Kitchen