Hi all! I’m back with your guide to the Netflix show Chef’s Table. Today, I started Volume 5 with this episode featuring Cristina Martinez — catch my explanation about why I’m traversing this show backwards in my previous post about Southern chef Sean Brock.
This episode, which centers around Mexican chef Cristina Martinez and the iconic barbacoa, tells a pretty heart-wrenching story. Cristina was born in Capulhuac, Mexico, barbacoa central. Barbacoa is a time-consuming, extremely technical preparation of lamb that involves smoking the whole lamb in a fire-pit with orange juice, salt, and agave (maguey) leaves.
As a child, Cristina learned to make barbacoa with her family. At a young age, she married a man whose family was also in the barbacoa business. But her husband’s family exploited her, forcing her to work long hours. Her husband himself abused her. The birth of her daughter, Karla, changed her outlook. Now, she knew that she needed to work to support her daughter — especially when her husband began insinuating that he’d happily marry Karla off. Cristina wanted to help Karla further her education, something she herself hadn’t had a chance to do.
When Karla decided she wanted to attend boarding school, Cristina made a life-changing decision: to cross into the United States, illegally, and seek work so that she could support her daughter’s education.
She found work — and love — in a restaurant in Philadelphia. After marrying Ben Miller, an American citizen, she applied for a Green Card. The officials told her she needed to ask her employer for his support. Instead of giving it, he said there was nothing he could do, apologized, and fired her. Out of a job, Cristina began cooking barbacoa at home, using new techniques to replicate the traditional flavors. She and Ben sold the barbacoa on weekends out of their apartment. What they were doing was illegal and liable to land them in trouble.
Then a friend of Ben’s came through with some restaurant space that had opened up, and they were able to open South Philly Barbacoa. From their inception, the little restaurant and its concept — a safe space for Mexican immigrants where they could feel at home — were a big hit. Mexican immigrants, tourists, and Philly residents alike flocked to catch a mouthful of Cristina’s barbacoa.
But she was still undocumentada, sin papeles. Undocumented, without papers. At the same time, she was forging connections with other chefs around Philadelphia and New England. She began working as an activist for immigrants’ rights, while trying to get her daughter into the country. As of today, Karla remains in Mexico, and Cristina remains undocumented.
This Chef’s Table episode didn’t come without backlash. For instance, here’s a post on Reddit arguing that a woman who crossed the border illegally and snuck indigenous Mexican corn into the U.S. illegally shouldn’t be “glorified.” In my opinion, Chef’s Table didn’t glorify Cristina Martinez. It provided a space for her story. At no point did anyone apply any value on her status as an undocumented immigrant.
The point of her restaurant, in many ways, is to get to know people from a culinary perspective. She brings people together and makes them feel like family. And the hard work and dedication she’s applied to her craft, combined with her commitment to her daughter’s education, makes her American in spirit.
To learn more about Cristina Martinez and the causes close to her heart, check out this article.