(Photo courtesy of Netflix)
South Philly Barbacoa’s co-owner and chef, Cristina Martinez, has gained local as well as national recognition over the past several years for not only her marinated lamb tacos, pancita and consomé, but her advocacy for undocumented restaurant workers’ rights and her own publicly shared undocumented status.
She’s been called Philly’s “Queen of BBQ [and] voice of the undocumented.” Bon Appétit named the Italian Market shop “One of the Best New Restaurants in the Country” in 2016. Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious” food and travel show stopped by as part of an episode that debuted this past winter, and just last month, Martinez appeared in a segment about immigrants in the restaurant industry on late-night comedy show “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”
This, at a time when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests have been ramping up in Philadelphia since the election of President Donald Trump.
She may soon reach international celebrity status: South Philly Barbacoa will be the focus of an episode of critically acclaimed Netflix series “Chef’s Table,” to premiere as part of the show’s fifth season on Friday, Sept. 28.
Other chefs featured in the season include Barcelona’s Albert Adria, Istanbul’s Musa Dağdeviren and Bangkok’s Bo Songvisava. A trailer will be released closer to the episode’s air date, according to a Netflix rep.
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The restaurant’s co-owner and Martinez’s husband, Benjamin Miller, said an early cut of the episode they were able to watch focused on his wife’s culinary tradition, but also her journey to the United States from Mexico, her ongoing separation from her family and especially the political implications of her immigration status.
“We saw the opportunity for ‘Chef’s Table’ to use the platform for our political message,” Martinez said via Miller as translator while sitting in the dining room of their second restaurant, El Compadre, on an August afternoon.
Specifically, the two are trying to raise awareness that many of America’s kitchens and restaurants are operating thanks to undocumented workers, who make up approximately five percent of the civilian labor force, according to the Pew Research Center.
But those workers are often earning lower wages than their documented counterparts and can’t speak up for themselves for fear of retaliation from exploitive business owners, according to Miller. Martinez herself was allegedly fired from the restaurant where she and Miller met seven years ago because of her undocumented status.
“It’s a system that’s set up to exploit workers,” Miller said. “It’s intentional. They keep people without rights so they can have cheap labor. And they’re not going around deporting everybody, they’re creating fear in communities, [so] people continue to be silent, keep their head down.”
"It wasn't so much of a really joyous, triumphant show. It was a little melancholic and ends on a sad note."
The episode was filmed in August 2017 by production company Boardwalk Pictures, but the show’s producers had gotten in touch the previous January after seeing the Bon Appétit video. Miller said they were initially reluctant to participate: Martinez’s son had recently and suddenly died, so the two had taken over his restaurant, El Compadre, and closed the original South Philly Barbacoa.
(The second version of South Philly Barbacoa opened this summer at Ninth and Ellsworth streets. Martinez said the restaurant epitomizes everything that goes into her cuisine: community, diversity, respect, quality. “This is Mexico, this is barbacoa, this is Cristina Martinez, this is our culture,” she said via Miller. “It’s beautiful to see.”)
Besides the show’s timing, the couple was also concerned about being featured because many of its earlier episodes include Michelin-starred chefs at restaurants that require reservations a year in advance. South Philly Barbacoa’s tacos cost a few bucks a pop. They were worried their story wouldn’t fit in.
Eventually, though, they agreed. A dozen-person crew filmed for about two weeks in Philadelphia, then in Capulhuac, Mexico, where Martinez’s family lives. According to Miller, much of the resulting footage explains the difficulty of Martinez’s separation from her adult daughter, Karla, who’s currently working as a nurse.
Martinez cites wanting to put Karla through school as the reason why she immigrated to the U.S., and the fact that she has been able to financially support her family is what Miller calls a “bittersweet success” — because of her undocumented status, she can’t travel to Mexico to visit them. All this is included in the version of the episode they saw.
“It wasn’t so much of a really joyous, triumphant show,” Miller said. “It was a little melancholic and ends on a sad note” — a portrait of a woman who has overcome many personal and professional struggles in a male-dominated industry, who has crossed a desert to build a life for a family she cannot see.
The production company also interviewed experts recommended by Martinez and Miller who could speak to relevant social issues, including New Orleans chef Tunde Wey, whose public work focuses on racism in the restaurant industry, and Inger Díaz Barriga, a Univision journalist who profiled Martinez in a podcast series, “Mejor vete, Cristina” (“Better go, Cristina”).
A representative from Boardwalk Pictures declined to comment on the content of the episode.
— La Barbacoa (@lambtacos) August 11, 2018
Philadelphia City Council member and staunch immigrant rights proponent Helen Gym was also interviewed for the episode, at City Hall. She said she discussed “the value of being able to work as a human right, and the extraordinarily aggressive and restrictive measures that were being undertaken by the federal administration” during this “unfriendly and dangerous time for immigrants.”
“I’m a huge fan of ‘Chef’s Table,’ and I’m a huge fan of Ben and Cristina and South Philly Barbacoa, so those three things all coming together was a personal fantasy coming true, but also a wonderful celebration of the value that [they] bring to the City of Philadelphia,” Gym said.
Not only is Martinez a woman being recognized for her cooking prowess in a typically masculine profession, she also “creates a home for so many immigrants who land in Philadelphia,” said the policymaker.
"Having separated families is part of immigrant life, and Cristina's story is particularly poignant and moving and challenging."
One example: South Philly Barbacoa does not cater to tourists or white-collar professionals. The restaurant opens only on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays at 5 a.m., when many immigrant workers are ending or beginning their work days, and it closes when the food is sold out.
“Having separated families is part of immigrant life,” Gym said. “And Cristina’s story is particularly poignant and moving and challenging, and I know she feels it, so her response is not to be lonely and grieving all the time, but to pour it into her food.”
The councilmember first connected to the restauranteurs because of their mutual activism, and spoke soon after the 2016 election at one of the couple’s #Right2Work dinner and discussion dinners, where attendees have a meal and panelists discuss the intersection of race, ethnicity, food, culture and politics.
Gym said Martinez and Miller also contributed to the April 2017 writing of a City Council resolution “recognizing every person’s fundamental right to earn a living, regardless of immigration status, and affirming the City of Philadelphia’s commitment to protect and secure a safe and dignified workplace for all.”
While the resolution was not directly tied to specific actions, it served as a statement of affirmation supporting the ideology behind city recent policies such as ending a data-sharing contract with ICE known as PARS and the issuing of municipal identification cards for Philadelphia residents who can’t get government-issued IDs, Gym said.
Martinez knows that this very public self-identification as an undocumented immigrant is risky: “She said she’s also worried because there’s also people that don’t like her existence,” Miller translated.
Still, she said, “estoy aquí.” I’m here.
Gym has pledged to would do everything in her power to keep them safe and in Philadelphia, should the need arise.
“This is an administration that is unabashed in attacking immigrants, no matter their legal status,” she said, citing the recent news that the State Department is denying passports to U.S. citizens born near the border of Mexico. “So, yes, anybody stepping forward right now puts themselves at grave risks. That is why we need to be particularly protective of Ben and Cristina as they step forward. … They recognize that their celebrity and their fame is meaningless if their voices are silenced.”
Indeed, the potential positive results outweigh the bad in South Philly Barbacoa’s owners’ minds.
For one, they hope the episode will reach someone in a position of power — a senator, an immigration lawyer — who will take up their cause and help them bring Karla to the U.S. to visit; according to Miller, her travel visa has been denied three times, so Martinez hasn’t seen her since she left Mexico.
But on a larger scale, they hopes viewers will finish the episode with a sense that immigrant workers, regardless of their status, should be celebrated.
“She feels that she’s representing more than just herself, she’s representing people from Latin America who are working in kitchens in this country,” Miller said.
Next up is another round of #Right2Work dinners in the fall. The couple tried to organize more after the 2016 series, but put the campaign on pause when Martinez’s son died. With the popularity of “Chef’s Table,” they expect that “the doors we’ve been trying to bang on will open for us,” Miller said. “Once she has a bigger platform, we’ll be more effective organizing for this kind of thing.”
Eventually — because they don’t believe Martinez will ever be able to attain U.S. citizenship — they’ll likely move to Mexico and set up a barbacoa restaurant there.
And, Miller said, “we’d like to rest at some point.”
This story was edited by Technical.ly Philly reporter Roberto Torres.
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