Lorenzo Reyes learned to cook from his mother, before she passed away. He, his father, and his older siblings cared for the rest of the family in Mexico City. Cooking allows him to pass on the memories of cooking with his family to his own children. He was one of the 10 restaurateurs whose food was featured at the YUM fundraiser on April 6, which supported the work of The Welcome Project. The seventh annual fundraiser coincided with the 30th anniversary of Somerville’s sanctuary city status, and The Welcome Project’s existence.
“The memories are about my mom. She taught me how to make them,” Reyes said of his mother, who died of illness when he was young. “She taught everybody how to cook, because she knew she wasn’t going to be with us anymore.”
Reyes emigrated from Mexico City to the United States in 1989. Though he began at the very bottom of the restaurant food chain, working as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant in Waltham, Reyes never gave up the dream of one day opening a Mexican restaurant.
Fast-forward 25 years, and Reyes is the head chef and owner of Rincon Mexicano. Tonight, he served both chicken tacos and vegetable tacos to long lines of YUM patrons, piling the steaming fillings onto small, soft, warm corn tortillas. But he did so mindfully, and with care.
“We never grew up middle class. We were from the low class,” Reyes said. “My mother, she always told me, ‘When you get a piece of meat, or something … you need to put your mind in it. Maybe you will not have chicken again for another couple days, so you need to make it the best.’ She always cooked like that.”
Not all of Reyes’ memories of cooking with his family revolve around his mother, though. Growing up, he was part of a boisterous, close-knit household. After his mother passed, Reyes, his older brothers, and their father took care of the family, which meant his father wasn’t home very often.
“My father would work a lot. He would leave the house at 5 a.m., and not come back until 8 p.m. But he would be with us on Saturdays and Sundays, so no one would want to go out!” Reyes said with a chuckle.
Reyes and his siblings cherished these weekends. Everyone would decide as a group what they would make for lunch and dinner, and then divide and conquer, some going to the market to buy the necessary ingredients, and others starting various elements of the chosen dishes. Everything was freshly made that day, which often took several hours. But they didn’t mind.
“Everybody would cook and we’d talk. It was fun to bring everyone together to talk,” Reyes said. “There are so many memories.”
One memory in particular stands out, and it involves rabbits. Lots and lots of rabbits.
“We used to have two rabbits. And after maybe six months, we had 50 rabbits, and everybody had to feed them and clean up after them,” Reyes said. “So, I told my father, ‘We need to start to eat these rabbits.’ And every weekend after that, we had rabbit.”
Fresh rabbit aside, childhood cooking habits have stuck with Reyes. He doesn’t rely on pre-made canned foods to prepare dishes at Rincon Mexicano, or cut corners. Everything at the restaurant is handmade, in many of the ways he learned as a child.
“That is when food tastes the most delicious, if you make it from scratch. We have about 25 spices to make the mole,” he said, using a term that refers to a wide variety of Mexican sauces. “To make a mole takes at least two to three hours.”
But just because Reyes is busy at the restaurant does not mean he neglects to pass on his memories and culinary traditions to his own children. Like his mother, Reyes wants to make sure his kids can cook, but also wants them to know where they come from, and make their own memories.
His father is still alive, too, and visits once a year for a few months. He, Reyes, and Reyes’ children cook together. While they cook, Reyes and his father reminisce.
“I tell my kids, ‘When I was younger, we did this. And, ‘Remember, father, when we would go to buy this?’ And he says, ‘Yeah!’,” Reyes said. “We share it all.”
Rincon Mexicano - 99 Broadway, Somerville, 617-776-1200