Cuisine as Culture
Chef Carlos Garza is the executive chef at pan-Latin American restaurant, Carnival, in Chicago. His restaurant is known, throughout the city, for its vibrant decor, delicious food, and diverse well-designed menu.
How did you get into the culinary arts originally?
When I was 10 or 11 years old, I had a great connection with my mom. [I spent a lot of] time in the kitchen with her. [I learned the basics from her and] started to write my own recipes. To this day– I would say over 30 years later– she still has those recipes.
Were those recipes fully original or were they adaptations of your mom’s recipes?
Original! I was creating something in my mind, [putting it down on paper], and going to the grocery store and buying [the ingredients]. Back then, technology wasn’t really there for us to [just find recipes on] Google. So, it was all out of my mind–-just thinking about food and creating. [I’d imagine a combination of flavors] and ask my mom to go to the store with me to buy the ingredients. I just hope nobody got sick.
That’s what I was going to say! I have a 9-year-old niece, and if we let her write her own recipes, she’d just pour sugar onto chocolate onto gummy worms. Do you remember any of the recipes you created?
One of them that I really loved was basically a dulce de leche panna cotta. Another one that I still remember was a [sort of] layered tuna salad sandwich. My mom used to make tuna salad for us all the time– and one day I [started] layering it, like bread tuna, bread tuna, bread tuna. And then I pressed it and put it in the fridge.
It sounds like you and your mom really shared a bond in the kitchen.
I used to spend a lot of time in my mom’s kitchen helping her. [It was unique, because a lot of people think that], “men don’t really belong in the kitchen.” And in Latino cultures all over the world, the man is [expected to] work and provide and women belong in the kitchen— cooking and having the food ready for the kids and family.
Did anyone in your family see your interest in cooking as a gender transgression in that way?
No, actually not really. But, my brothers used to say to my mom, “why are you keeping him in the kitchen? The kitchen is not for boys. Have him do something else.”
When did you start working in kitchens professionally?
I started [when I was 17], as a dishwasher, at the bottom. Just learning and experiencing [how kitchens really functioned].
Did you grow up in Chicago?
No, I came to Chicago later. I grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico.
And what drew you to Chicago?
I came to Chicago to work. I was trying to find the promised land. The American dream.
Tell us about Carnival.
Well, Carnival, as the name [suggests], is a place that represents the culture of Latin America—from Mexico all the way to Argentina, stopping by the Caribbean. The concept of Carnival being a celebration, a party, where people feel [free and decadent]. We’re delivering really good service, amazing food, and combine all of that with a lot of Latin culture.
Well, Carnival, as the name [suggests], is a place that represents the culture of Latin America—from Mexico all the way to Argentina, stopping by the Caribbean. The concept of Carnival being a celebration, a party, where people feel free and decadent.
Tell us about some of the dishes you’ve created.
We connect and represent dishes from every Latin American country. We have Peruvian and Mexican ceviches. We have steaks from Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Caribbean coconut shrimp fish tacos. Spanish octopus. We have dishes from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela.
How big is your menu? It sounds enormous.
It’s not, actually. I’m a big fan of a [smaller dedicated menu]. It’s a unique condensed menu with no more than 35 items– each representing a history and culture.
How often does your menu change?
Can you tell us a bit about your menu writing process?
I start by thinking about the season and [what ingredients are in season]. Obviously, [there are some menu items that we never change, as they are sacred to our regulars]. But [for the most part] I have a lot of freedom to invent. I love creating new dishes, new plating, and [training my staff on them].
How long have you been with CASA?
About three years, I believe. Maybe four years, actually, because it was before the pandemic. After reopening was the first time I brought in a lot of students. A lot of them are doing very well.
And how did you discover the program initially?
It was through a person that works for CASA that called the restaurant, through recommendations about me.
What do you think are the benefits of the program for the students?
Every time I get a new student I explain that with this program you have the freedom of being in an open kitchen. [We] provide all the tools and equipment for you to learn and practice and work as many hours as you can. Obviously CASA requires certain hours for the student— but most of the time, I tell the students, “if you want to grow in this industry, you need to put in [extra] hard work, dedication, discipline, and practice.” You can make something really, really nice out of this as a career, but obviously you have to put in the effort.
Every time I get a new student I explain that with this program you have the freedom of being in an open kitchen. We provide all the tools and equipment for you to learn and practice and work as many hours as you can.
Have you hired very many students after their completion of the program?
Absolutely! I have hired four students after they finished the program. Three have already moved on because they felt that they were ready to experience and explore [different restaurants and cuisines]. I’m completely happy with that– [I think that exploring different types of food and cooking is vital to a chef’s education].
Do you have any advice for students as they’re entering the program?
[I advise students to commit themselves to] discipline, passion, and consistency. Hard work and dedication. I guarantee them that rewards are gonna be delivered to them without them even knowing it. CASA is such a great concept, such a great school, it gives the freedom to students to learn and to absorb as much as they can. [I advise them] to ask questions, I always tell them, “ask me questions. Ask me as many questions as you can and put the answers into practice.”