National pride: Mexican-Americans Alfonso Rivas and Carlos Gaytán embody resilient spirit
Carlos Gaytán took a second to himself and prayed. He had made the tough decision to close his restaurant “Mexique” in the West Loop later that week and asked God for help.
“I got on my knees and start praying I said, ‘God, I’m worried about my kids,’” Gaytán said in a recent interview inside his restaurant Tzuco in River North with Cubs first baseman Alfonso Rivas. “What’s gonna happen if I close the restaurant?”
The next morning, he went to the downstairs of his apartment building when his phone rang. It was a life-changing phone call — only he didn’t know it at the time.
On the other end of that call was someone from the Michelin Guide group. They were calling to tell him that they had been following him for a few years and were making him the first Mexican-born Michelin Star chef in the world.
That was nice and all to Gaytán, but he didn’t know what a Michelin Star was or meant and since he thought of it as just a title it didn’t solve his most pressing issue — the looming loss of his beloved restaurant.
Mexique was a fine-dining restaurant, but at the time he was getting less than a dozen guests a night — hardly enough to be sustainable in a city with plenty of world-renowned restaurants. So Gaytán went about his day.
The next morning, his phone rang again. This time, it was a guest looking to make a reservation.
“No problem,” Gaytán thought.
After all, he wasn’t taking too many reservations at the time. He stayed on the phone with the guest, opened his computer and went to find a time and table for the patron. He was in shock — the entire day was booked.
“What about tomorrow?” Gaytán asked the would-be guest. “Of course,” they said.
The same issue occurred — and for the next day and the day after that. Overnight, his restaurant had gone from the brink of closure to world-renowned.
“People travel just go get to your place from other countries,” Gaytán said.
That’s just one part of his resiliency.
Gaytán arrived in the United States 31 years ago and worked as a dishwasher in Northbrook. He would spend his days off in the kitchen, learning about cooking and he’d travel to other restaurants and ask to shadow. From there he worked his way up. He never went to culinary school, he didn’t have formal training like many Michelin starred chefs.
Gaytán had ganas — Spanish for desire. And that drive led him to where he is now. It’s an inspiration to Mexicans and Americans alike, two countries he proudly represents — like Cubs first baseman Rivas.
Rivas was born in San Diego, raised in Tijuana, Mexico and moved back to the states in 5th grade. He’s honored by the dual nationalism that Gaytán also shares.
“You feel a sense of pride that you carry over your shoulder, which feels great,” Rivas said. “You take it out on the field, and with whatever you do.”
For Gaytán that pride is on display in his hospitality — he treats his guests with the care and compassion he’d show family and his restaurant is chock-full of items from his hometown of Huitzuco, Mexico. For Rivas, that pride is in the way he plays the game — his walk-up song is the famous “Volver, Volver” by the late Vicente Fernández, a song that can be heard anywhere in Mexico.
“Hearing how the song goes, and then everybody cheering, with the Mexican community here in Chicago it just makes you feel like right at home,” Rivas said. “That’s exactly what you want, you know, you want you want to be proud of where you come from. Proud of your country. And, you know, that makes me the proudest really.”