A little over a week ago, the Supreme Court voted to uphold the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, allowing the roughly 670,000 young, undocumented immigrants who are part of that program — the so-called DREAMers — to continue to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation.
One of the DACA recipients who shed tears of relief when the Supreme Court ruling came down was Rogelio Garcia, a rising-star chef in the Bay Area restaurant scene. The former Top Chef contestant was most recently the chef de cuisine at Michelin-starred Spruce, and now hopes to find a location in the Bay Area to open a fine-dining restaurant of his own.
Garcia tells Eater SF that he has never spoken publicly about his immigration status before, in part, he says, because he never wanted to dwell on it or to have anyone give him any special treatment. “I want to be respected for the work,” he says.
Still, Garcia says, the waves of emotion he felt when the ruling to uphold DACA came down made him want to tell his story — especially since it’s a topic that, in his experience, is rarely spoken about openly within the Bay Area restaurant industry. In fact, Garcia says that while he has worked with many undocumented cooks during the course of his 18-year career, he doesn’t know any other chefs who are DACA recipients.
Born in Mexico City, Garcia says that he moved to Los Angeles with his mother when he was just a toddler. Then, as a teenager, his family relocated to Yountville, in Napa Valley, which is where he started working in restaurant kitchens in 2002, slowly climbing up the ranks from his first dishwashing job.
“I’ve always worked in restaurants undocumented,” Garcia says, noting that his immigration status hindered his career in those early years. The chef never attended culinary school, he says, because he couldn’t afford it, and any scholarships he would have applied for all required a social security number. Then there were the many cooking jobs he wasn’t able to land because his applications would bounce back — again, because he didn’t have a social security number.
“It’s a hard feeling, you know what I mean? You know you’re qualified,” Garcia says. “It happens to a lot of good guys — people who just wanted to work. And you feel bad inside.” In his case, the thing that made these rejections especially difficult to accept was that he had spent almost his entire life in the United States: “I feel like I’m from America,” he says.
For Garcia, receiving DACA status — and the work permit that came with it — in 2012 was a major turning point in his career. Indeed, it wasn’t until after getting his legal work permit that Garcia was able to land jobs at the most prestigious restaurants on his resume — positions at the French Laundry and Cyrus in wine country and, more recently, the Commissary and Spruce in San Francisco. Being a DACA recipient improved other aspects of Garcia’s life too: “It was a dream to be able to drive with a driver’s license,” he says.
Which isn’t to say that the program has been a cure-all. DACA doesn’t provide any permanent protections or a clear pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, and, even after the Supreme Court ruling, President Trump still appears to be determined to end the program. For Garcia, the biggest drawback these days is the fact that recipients can’t travel outside the country without giving up their DACA status. Otherwise, the chef says, he would love to travel to France or to his native Mexico for culinary research.
The travel issue came up when he was on Top Chef in 2017 — according to Garcia, the show’s producers had initially planned to film the season finale in another country, and he wound up having to approach them to explain his situation. “It can be a little embarrassing,” Garcia says. (The finale of that season was eventually filmed in Aspen, Colorado.)
Still, Garcia says, there’s no question that without DACA he wouldn’t have been afforded many of the opportunities he’s had in the past eight years, including what he hopes will be his first restaurant of his very own. When he left Spruce earlier this year, it was because he wanted to open his own place — a restaurant that combines his background in Northern California-style fine dining with his Mexican roots. The restaurant would, as Garcia puts it, go beyond “rice and beans” and would instead include dishes he’s served at past popup events, like grilled short ribs with sauce al pastor or roasted rabbit loin with mole.
COVID-19 put Garcia’s plans on hold, but the chef says he’s in the process of rewriting his business plan to account for the new dining reality, with hopes of finding a location somewhere in Napa, San Francisco, or Marin. And even in this new takeout-oriented era, Garcia says he’d like to offer a tasting menu for more adventurous diners, in addition to a la carte options. If he’s successful, the restaurant would be fairly unique: Californios, Val Cantu’s two-Michelin-starred spot in San Francisco’s Mission District, is the only other place in the Bay Area that’s doing a fine-dining Mexican tasting menu.
Garcia says he hopes that sharing the details of his immigration story as his career enters this next stage can be a source of inspiration for the younger immigrant chefs he works with — whatever country they’re from and whatever their immigration status might be.
“There are a lot of people out there that have the same story,” Garcia says. “If you don’t share it, it goes untold.”