National and local media have amply covered Dávila and her restaurant, too, which is not quite a year old, with at least sixty write-ups, including from publications like National Restaurant News, Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times and Eater, as well as Plate and Chicago magazines.
It’s fair to say Dávila is one of the most talked-about chefs in the city. It’s also fair to say that her influence is only beginning to be felt.
“What We Do Is Witchcraft”
“Magic” comes up a lot in conversation with Dávila. We talked with her about going out to eat at other restaurants—a luxury she enjoys very rarely these days— and how, in the kitchen, she considers herself a bruja.
I love going out to eat, and I love everything about restaurants. It’s like a show, an orchestra, all these moving organic parts, right? But sometimes it’s like you eat something that was just like, yeah, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s good… It’s good, but it’s mechanical. You could tell when chefs are working mechanically and when they’re passionate, when they’re conveying where the food is coming from. You can feel it. That’s just intoxicating to me, the best part. That’s the magic, and that’s what I wanted to put into my food. What we do is witchcraft.
The food must come from someplace deep inside the people making the food, and it also comes from a place of shared roots, a place of connection.
Almost everyone here is Latino, and when I’m talking about food, I’m talking about connecting. That’s what I feel is my magic power. I’m just like all the other people here, and our food comes from love—everything comes from love—and it’s like something magical because it reminds us of our roots. Roots are part of who you are, and when I tell [her kitchen staff] about what the dishes are like, they say, “Yeah, my mom used to make a dish that was similar,” and that gives you the connection, the feeling and taste memories, your beautiful feelings of your mother making you something that would fill you up.
Dávila cooked a lot at home, in the United States and in her family’s traditional home in San Luis Potosi. In Mexico, cooking in the kitchen with her abuela, her grandmother, was a formative experience, the first sparks of that passion for food that led her to Mi Tocaya Antojería.
I would go to the markets with her. I would always be doing everything with her. All I wanted to do was just spend time with her and our chickens, cooking. My abuela was from a ranch, and she would make flour tortillas, and that’s where I learned these magical things. I add a little bit of this, no measurements, That’s the spirit. In me, the home cook and the professional cook are combined into one. It’s the energy.
“Where’s the Growth in Just Following a Fucking Chef?”
When Dávila was at the since-closed Cantina 1910, the restaurant got criticism, which we covered in “A Genuine Myth: If They Call it ‘Authentic,’ It’s Probably Baloney,” reporting that “A chorus of Chicago food writers criticized what seemed an uninformed drubbing on Yelp; you don’t have to look very deeply into the Yelp commentary about this Mexican restaurant to find statements like ‘It’s definitely NOT authentic Mexican’ and ‘There is nothing authentically Mexican about this place.’ With all due respect, it doesn’t seem that many of these good people know what they’re talking about.”
The cuisines of all countries constantly evolve, based on the discovery of new preparation techniques, the availability of new ingredients, and the simple impulse to design new ways to please diners. Dávila was trying new things at Cantina 1910, and she continues to try new things at Mi Tocaya Antojería. Dávila does her research, and though she’s not afraid at all to sometimes incorporate new ingredients into her dishes, she loses patience with chefs who are messing with classics in a way that transforms them into something completely different, and that fail to show respect for traditional Mexican foodways.
I was at this event, and there was this guy who runs a Mexican restaurant, and he loves the food, but he had something that he was calling cecina [a traditional Mexican dried beef] and it was literally Jewish-style brisket, corned beef. And he’s like, “Yeah, well, I wanted to put my Jewish roots in there.” But you don’t get to change hundreds of years of making something because you want to put your roots into it!
Dávila proudly works within tradition, but she unabashedly pushes the limits while respecting the underlying culinary heritage. She makes a stew of nopalitos, for instance, topping it with cheese curds and a Milanesa that uses sweetbreads instead of the more traditional pork. Throughout, she endeavors to stay true to what she knows of Mexican food, which does not mean following the recipe that everyone else uses.
Where’s the growth in just following a fucking chef? I’m not going to recycle the recipes, you know, I’m here to make recipes. People who have worked for Rick Bayless, they cook exactly like him. They almost have the exact menu [as] his menu at Frontera. There’s a lack of creativity and growth.
“Say It to the Universe”
Last summer, I was scheduled to host a presentation at Chicago Gourmet that would feature Dávila cooking with Dudley Nieto, one of Chicago’s most venerable Mexican chefs. The topic was “The Mexican Milpa,” a millennia-old agricultural technique for growing the three sisters—corn, beans, squash—in rotation to maximize yield and nutritional quality. I called Dávila on her cell phone and when she returned the call, it went to voicemail. It was fiery, and went like this:
Oh my god, guys, this is a lot of money. We need to change it right now. This is sunflower oil. Motherfucker. This stuff is so wildly expensive. Puta madre… [after a few other Spanish words I didn’t recognize, she realizes she’s being recorded] Oh hi, David, sorry you had to hear all that…
She was upset at an employee for using the wrong oil, and this started me wondering how she handles her employees, who seem to fully respect her. Was this the result of their love for her or their fear of her?
I have a really good relationship with pretty much everybody because you know, there’s so many things going on in the world, and here you think about the things that you can control. And they know I want them to do better. In staff meetings, I ask them to say out loud what their goals are. Say it out loud. Say it to the universe: We’re working together as a team, so this is not just my coworker; you get to know them as people, with goals and dreams. And then we can all help each other. We become a community with more things to offer and more things to receive.
One night recently, we stopped by Mi Tocaya Antojería, unannounced, for dinner. I watched Dávila, unseen, working the room but also working with her people. The look in their eyes was not the look of fear: they were taking direction and they seemed to look up to her while they kept their heads down doing their job. Dávila believes her job is to turn out outstanding food, of course, but also to help those who work for her to achieve full potential.
You should share everything. That’s how we get better. I’m their mentor. I feel like I’m much more nurturing the way I run everything here. I want the best for everybody, but I’m also very tough on everybody. You show people things that you’ve learned. That’s what I do here. I don’t know where it comes from. It probably comes from being a mother.
“Representing the People”
Sometimes Dávila has her hair in an up-do, with flowers in her hair like Frida Kahlo, and she seems to frequently be photographed in the attire favored by the Mexican magic-realist artist, wife of Diego Rivera, lover of Trotsky, icon of a strong yet surprisingly vulnerable woman. I asked Dávila about her connection to Kahlo and her similarities to one of the most in-your-face and bold artists, one of the most powerful icons of femininity.
My mom was a painter, and my dad would support her and frame her art for her. I’ve always been very much about Kahlo’s paintings, her story, and her poems, where she really gives these little glimmers, her one-line poems that are so vast. Those are the real bones of her. She was a fascinating person, and she drew a lot of inspiration from Mexican culture and from the indigenous people. After the revolution, Mexico was such a hub for the writers and poets and painters, and you have all these new political agendas after overthrowing a long-term party that was completely suppressing people, a party that owned the indigenous people and the lands. She was inspired, and you see it in her paintings and you see it in her dresses. She was representing the people, the indigenous people, and that’s where I really draw my ideas and my plates, from that heritage, from that culture.
I came across Kahlo’s “The Wounded Deer,” a painting of a doe, with Kahlo’s head running through a barren wood, riddled with arrows. I mentioned this painting to Dávila and asked if she in any way identified with that side of Kahlo’s persona, the side that portrays her victimhood, either as a wounded animal or as a person trapped in a bed, insides ripped out and on display. (Kahlo had childhood polio, was in a bus crash, and suffered physical challenges that are reflected in her paintings.)
I’m not a victim. I’ve had a beautiful life. My parents have been amazing. I love my family. I have two beautiful children. I knew at a young age what I wanted to aspire to be. I am living the dream. I’m with the love of my life. I feel like I’ve kind of finally evolved into the chef that I was always seeking to be, and now I want to continue the growth: There’s so much that I want to do.
“Let’s Just Do It”
Joe Boldin is Dávila’s husband. She sometimes goes by Diana Dávila Boldin, which though perhaps technically, even legally, correct, seems not as poetic as the alliterative Diana Dávila, strong initial D sounds balanced by final A sounds, signifiers of the feminine in Spanish and other Romance languages.
During our interview, husband Joe sat nearby—Diego to her Frida—working on his laptop, taking care of the business side of the family enterprise. They were high school sweethearts, and now they work together.
Husband-wife teams are not unheard of in the restaurant industry, but usually the wife takes a backseat position to the husband. Not so in this instance: Joe helps in the background, although the day I visited, he was in front, shoveling fresh snowfall from the sidewalk and walkway to Mi Tocaya Antojería.
We went to high school together, we were high school sweethearts. He’s my muse.
No doubt, Boldin’s emotional support is crucial. No one ever said being a chef or owning a restaurant is easy, and Dávila does both.
It’s a lot of work, and it’s a toll on your family, on your marriage and financially. It’s a lot. And from the last project I did, I mean I just saw it in them [the owners of another restaurant she worked at]. I saw it in their faces, you know. They were out $3 million. They had no more money. They’re fucked, you know. They separated.
I didn’t want to have my own place, but once I started looking and looking and there really weren’t any opportunities for me because who am I? I’m nobody. You know what I mean? I didn’t work at Alinea. I didn’t cook at Next. I didn’t work at Charlie Trotter’s. I didn’t work for one of the boys. You know what I mean? I didn’t. I was just kind of being tossed around and one night my husband and I are like, let’s just do it.
So, she opened her own place, and with it, a Pandora’s box of new, everyday worries.
What if nobody comes in for like three hours and we’re just sitting, you know, and I’m thinking “What have we done?” Like yesterday, we were slow until like 7:30pm. And I’m just like, nobody loves us any more. They forgot about us. We’re approaching the end of our first year. We’re not going to be “the new restaurant” any more. Now we don’t have all that publicity and everybody’s going to be covering all the new restaurants that are opening.
As Dávila said this, tears pooled under both her eyes, tears not of fear but of the passion that will likely continue to make Mi Tocaya Antojería one of the most exciting restaurants in Chicago.
The James Beard Foundation named Mi Tocaya Antojería, 2800 West Logan Boulevard, a semifinalist for 2018 recognition in the Best New Restaurant category and Diana Dávila a semifinalist for Best Chef: Great Lakes.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org