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Gjelina LA Head Chef: Rafael Martinez
A conversation between Chef Rafael Martinez and Shelley Kleyn Armistead.
Introduction by Shelley Kleyn Armistead
Rafael is unassuming and has a presence. In my mind when I see him, I see a stoic warrior. I am not sure if that visual truly belonged to me, or if it came about through a conversation with Travis. But that stoicism and calm demeanor makes him an excellent leader. Rafa, like many of our team, is Zapotec, a pre-Columbian civilization that took root in the Valley of Oaxaca (hence our restaurant Valle) at least 2500 years ago. And boy can he cook.
Rafa, who has been with the Gjelina Group since 2008, is part of the fabric and DNA of everything we do at Gjelina, and took over as head chef at the beginning of 2020. I have loved watching him step into this role that is so deserved.
As Chef Juan and I move into Gjelina NY, we do so happily, knowing that Rafa is at the helm. I hope you enjoy getting to know him more. We had a conversation around the communal table in Gjelina and various family members joined in.
Shelley Kleyn Armistead: Okay, so I'm here with Chef Rafa. Can you share your story with us? What was your childhood upbringing like in San Bartolo, and how did your journey lead you to Los Angeles?
Chef Rafael Martinez: Well, I grew up there and I used to do school work, which was kind of my childhood.
What age did you go to school in San Bartolo?
Until I was 16, so pre-school, kindergarten, there was first grade to sixth grade, and then you go to like 12th and 14th, which is like high school there.
But is that in San Bartolo? It's not in Tlacolula?
In San Bartolo, yeah. I was there, but I was also farming, you know. I went to school at nighttime. So I pretty much spent time with my friends during the day doing work with the farmers. Corn, flowers...
What flowers? Do you remember?
All the names, no, but we used to do like basil, flor de cempasúchil, the yellow flower?
Yeah, and then what else? I mean like we did radishes, fruits.
I also understand that the crop, not just like the milpa, but in San Bartolo specifically is garbanzo beans?
Garbanzo beans, corn, and black beans.
So would you associate San Bartolo with the farming community?
I heard a story, and I might have this wrong. But I heard a story that a lot of times when there's like a celebration of some sort, people drive to San Bartolo to get the garbanzo bean tortillas. Have you ever heard that?
Is Josie [Rafa’s sister-in-law, Gjelina Charcuterie] from San Bartolo?
Yes, she is.
Josie, do you remember garbanzo bean tortillas in San Bartolo, or no?
Josefina (Josie) Raymundo-Sanchez: Yeah!
I've never had a garbanzo bean tortilla.
Josie: Wow, I have some at home.
You do? Is it just the garbanzo bean? It's not garbanzo beans and maíz?
Josie: No, no, just the garbanzo bean.
I just saw Pedro's mom and dad when I was in Tlapazola, and they were saying that now the, like, scandal in Tlacolula is that people who are making tortillas in the markets are mixing the maíz with corn flour.
Chef Rafa: Is it better?
No, they're like it's not real, you know what I mean? They grow their own corn, they make the nixtamal, they make the tortillas, and they're like, now people are mixing corn flour in it. It's the big scandal in Tlacolula right now.
Okay, so growing up in San Bartolo, do you remember Chef Pedro told the story about how he and his friends used to run from Tlapazola to San Bartolo to play basketball against each other?
Yes, I remember a little bit the different towns coming like San Marcos and San Lucas. They always came at like five in the afternoon in groups.
That's so cool. I was speaking to Isabel, your cousin, when I was down there, and I was saying to her, "If there's one thing, what does San Bartolo need? Like does San Bartolo actually need anything?” And she mentioned the basketball court is so cracked; it needs to be resurfaced. There's no way for the kids to play.
I thought that it would be an interesting thing to find out how much it would cost, and see what the Gjelina Group Foundation could do.
That would be great because I know a lot of kids there like to do sports. They have a soccer field, but it's far away so a lot of people just don't go there. Basketball is in the center.
Right, so this is what I've been sort of like asking Pedro and Juan, and then I asked Pedro's sister out there and Juan's sister out there, like, what do you think San Bartolo or Tlapazola need? A lot of it is generated towards the kids.
Isabel also said they don't have a dentist because there's no dental equipment in the clinic there. And if they could get dental equipment, they could probably attract a dentist, which is something that they feel that they need. Very interesting conversations.
What age were you when you came over?
Why LA? Because my brothers were here. I had two brothers here, so I came. My dad wasn't there in Oaxaca, but then he went back.
So did your dad come first? And then your brothers?
Yeah, my dad came a long, long time ago.
Where did he work, do you remember?
He can't remember the place that he worked in. And then I asked him if he doesn't remember where the location was, like what's the name of the restaurant? But he's like, “I don't know.”
And your brothers can't remember?
No. They were there, too. But yeah, my dad came first, and then my two brothers came, and then I came.
Pretty much, for me, I imagined LA is like a place where you can work and make money. But then when I got here and I saw my brothers, like they worked at night and, in the morning, they just laid in bed and didn't do anything. One of my aunts told me, "Hey, this is how California is, if you're going to survive, you have to work, you have to study, you have to study."
So when you had a picture in your mind of leaving San Bartolo, Oaxaca and coming to LA, how was it different? How did it feel different? I've heard stories of, you know, “I was coming because I could make money and I could have more freedom, and I could maybe study a little bit more, and then I get here and it's actually a lot of work, the living conditions are not great…”
I think what I imagined is like I'm going to come here, grow up, make money to make my house and go back. And then get married. That was the thought. But then when I got here, I started to go to school, I was working, going around. I can do something there, but I'd rather be here, like make a living here as much as I can.
I understand that logic. So what was your first job?
It was in Westwood. A Japanese place called Tengu.
That was the beginning of everything.
Wow. Did you ever go to school after that?
Yeah. My mom's brother took me to the doctor to get all my documents to go to school, and he put me in school. So I went to school.
Which school did you go to?
I went to a high school that is on Wilshire and Granville.
Oh, I think — it's not University High School?
It's really good.
I went there for four years.
Oh, that's super cool. That's a really good high school. My son just got in on a lottery to that school. It's now a lottery to get in.
Oh wow, really? Yeah, I went there, and I started as a dishwasher.
Do you remember your shift from dishwasher to the next position?
Yeah, I worked for like six months as a dishwasher because I remember Chef Joe was there and was like, "Want to learn how to make salad?" I was trying to go more in the front of the house, like to do it faster, you know.
So your thought process was, I'll move from dishwasher to Front of House even faster.
Yeah. They were like, "Hey, do you want to learn how to make salads?" I was like, "Okay, why not?" And then I started making salad, and then I was just watching the guys grill, sauté, tempura.
Do you remember your first fish that you were given to filet by yourself? Because you have to have pretty serious knife skills to work there eventually, no?
No, if you start with a salad, no, not really, but they're gonna teach you. They taught me there pretty well. And I was watching how the chefs did the fish, how they filleted it. I started making salad, and then I moved to making tempura, and then grilled. So then by that time, I knew like all the stations and Chef Juan was already a chef there, and then they were like, "Would you like to join the team?" and I was like, "Why not?” I tried my best. I always keep trying my best, and that's how it started.
That's amazing. How did you meet your wife?
She followed me. Nah (laughs). I went to Oaxaca, and she went to Oaxaca the same year so I met her there.
That's so cute. You're from the same town?
But you never knew each other growing up?
No. I knew her older sister but not her.
Josie has another sister? There are three sisters?
They have five sisters.
Oh my god. No boys?
Chef Rafa: Yeah, two boys.
Josie: We're seven.
That's amazing. Your parents gave you lots of friends to grow up with, right?
Chef Rafa: And now I only have one boy.
And did your brother Rigo follow you?
It was a year, I think, and then he came.
(To Rigo) Why did you follow your brother here?
Rigo Martinez: It was more like, “Oh they're there, I want to go see California too.”
Your dad had already gone back? When you came over, had your dad already gone back?
Rigo: No, he brought me. I had in mind, like, I'm gonna go there and work, and then make the house for myself.
It's the Oaxacan dream — you're gonna come here, make money, and go and build your home.
Rigo: We talk a lot about, oh, people come here and they make a lot of money.
Yeah, you're all sold that story, yeah? Wow.
Rigo: I came when I was fifteen.
Chef Rafa: He came younger than I did.
So did you go to school here?
Rigo: Yeah. Same school, University High.
Did you and Rafa work together before?
What were you doing there? Front of house?
Rigo: No, I was washing dishes, and then I moved from there to the salad station.
Oh my God, it's the same path!
Rigo: And I went to pantry, and then I did the grill, so I kind of did everything.
So we could throw you on the line when we're in the shit?
Chef Rafa: Be like, "Hey, go!" (laughs)
How old is your baby now?
Rigo: A year and a half.
And now you all only make boys?
Right? No baby girls.
Rigo: My older brother has a girl, but she's already like twenty.
Is there ever a situation in your mind that you would go back?
What would that look like for you?
What shifted for me, because you know, I hadn’t been back to Oaxaca for three years, and what was different for me this time round was you can't get a hotel room. The restaurants are full. Like it's packed there. It's so huge for tourism. It's massive.
There's one new hotel that's opened there, the newest hotel that has opened, and it's a concept out of Mexico City. Small hotel, teeny. Like no swimming pool. No spa, no amenities. $6,000 US for two rooms for one week.
Chef Rafa and Rigo: US?!
US! Oaxaca's killing it in terms of money.
But what's fascinating to me is the chef program now. And you know what? I never asked the question — I don't know if it came as a result of the pandemic or it's just a smarter business model, but so many chefs are cooking in their homes. It's like six courses. It's a little bit like Enrique Olvera’s style.
So you show up, you knock on the gate, you go in, six courses including dessert, and then they pair some of the most extraordinary wines. Like you start with a little pulque that they've made, and then there's like one type of Mezcal, and there's wine, and there's beer, then there's another type of Mezcal, and then there's a poleo tea, right? 1400 to 1900 pesos per person depending on whether you have beverages or no beverages. It's $70 US to $95 US per person. Your average spend per head here at dinner is $65.
One that I did, I forget the name, but it was one of the many wild herbs, and like the tiniest cherry tomato I've ever seen on the bed, and then shrimp that's been mixed with avocado — that's just one dish.
Chef Rafa: Raw?
No, cooked. Then we had a taco with smoked octopus and avocado. Because they're quite limited on fish protein. And then we had a parsley soup.
Chef Rafa: Parsley?
It was like a thick lemon and parsley soup with another wild herb. I have the name of the herb somewhere. Red snapper with squash blossoms, raw squash blossoms. And then we had mole with snapper. And then like a coconut ice cream. It was excellent. You see the same things because the only fish available was red snapper, but the flavor profile was fantastic. They're only doing six tables a night, but when you're doing it in your home and you're getting that kind of money, your quality of living is good... they're just spending their days in the market. But this one guy, I'll send it to you, his name is Jorge and the restaurant is called Alfonsina. He was one of Enrique's chefs.
Chef Rafa: Where?
It's like just near the airport in Oaxaca. Like literally, you don't even go into the city. It's like a little offshoot. It's a little village that starts with an "A." We got caught in a traffic jam because they were all coming up because it was Holy Week, so everybody was coming up with the crosses and sandals, and we were like stuck in the middle of it.
It’s fascinating because there's an indoor kitchen that looks like your kitchen, and then there's an outdoor kitchen. But they weren't using the outdoor kitchen, so I asked, "What's that for?" The mama makes everybody in the village breakfast and lunch. So they have two business models: you can go for your huevos and tortillas in the morning, and your quesadilla or whatever it is for lunch, but at night it flips to Jorge’s food. And they're all living together. It's fucking fascinating. And then you can rent out the rooms above.
The new trend, as well, is to do like a sourdough type bakery. It feels very California. But they've got these bakeries that are opening up in the city now, like Gjusta or Tartine. Boulenc did this one rye bread — actually, I really wanted to bring it to you. It was a rye bread with pumpkin seeds, it was fantastic. So next door they have a little store where they're selling the ceramics, and upstairs they have seven bedrooms. It's genius. They open at 8:30am every morning, and from 8:10, there's a line and then you put your name down. If you get there at 8:45, it's a 40 minute wait.
Chef Rafa: Wow.
And then you can also go into the bakery and pick up to-go. I had Miguel, Head Baker from Gjusta, when I was meeting with the Head Baker from Pan con Madre, which is another bakery, I had them talk. I wanted Miguel to ask, like, "What are your influences?” "Why are you doing live ferments?" Because when you see the panaderías, there's no adobe baking, it looks like our ovens. But what's fascinating is the two people who have opened there, they're Mexican but they're not from Oaxaca. It's very interesting politically.
Yeah, but there's cash if you can go in with a business plan, like if you can go in and you can satisfy accommodation, an experience, and great food, you will have — this is me speaking out of turn because I'm not Oaxacan, and you guys have been through so much more emotionally navigating this topic — I can only imagine your quality of life would be better than it is.
Rigo: Yeah, I have that in mind.
You've got to be super strategic, like set it all up. My thing would be, like, use us, set it all up before you go. Like you find the property, you get the permits, if you have somebody, an architect, working on the ground with you, you can do a lot, you get it dialed in.
Kythzia, who has the foundation for the cerámica, she's building a house of clay which is a teaching center for people to learn about clay and to hold onto all of these stories. They have a restaurant, and they would like to partner with Gjelina.
Rigo: I'll do my own hotel.
You'd make so much money. What do you love most about home?
Chef Rafa: There? Family, food, and going to the mountains.
I love those mountains.
Like in my childhood, my mom always made soup with chepil and amaranth, that was like my favorite. And my grandma used to make this beef stew with lemon, lots of lemon. That's my favorite, favorite, favorite.
Do you ever make that now?
My mom came and she made it for me.
But you must make it!
I make it, but I can't get it right. They don't give me the recipe (laughs).
You have to go and learn from them. It's funny, when I was speaking to Pedro about it, he's like, "I can shape pizza dough, I can bake bread, but I can't make tortillas the way my mom makes tortillas."
Yeah, they have that...I don't know.
So the soup is amaranth and chepil?
Yeah, they boil it and they just throw the amaranth in there, and they make a jalapeño sauce, and put it in there. Salt, lemon juice. Simple, simple.
But there's corn in it?
No, just the amaranth.
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And boiling it in water? No stock? Like beef stock or chicken stock?
And then they add lemon juice and...
When they serve it, lemon juice and the jalapeño sauce.
Oh my God, that sounds amazing.
They make the tortilla fresh, like what is fresh at the time. So you'd have a soft tortilla with that.
And that's your favorite food memory from home?
And your grandmother — is it your mom's mom?
No, it's my dad's mom.
Are your grandparents still alive?
No, only my grandma. My grandpas died young, like 56 and 60, both.
Both of them. Did they ever come to the US, or did it start with your father's generation?
No, they didn't. It started with my father.
What was breakfast like for you in your home?
We had oatmeal, sometimes with milk, sometimes with just water. Maybe with sugar. Bread. And then we'd work, have lunch at like 10 or 11. But we never had breakfast with eggs.
Are eggs a traditional breakfast in Oaxaca?
No, not really. I think for central Oaxaca, yes, but not in the towns. They eat chocolate, oatmeal, coffee, and bread.
And the oatmeal is made from oats or it's made from maíz?
Sometimes they make maíz, sometimes oats.
Because in Africa it's made from maíz. We eat like a white maíz porridge.
We use rice, like a rice pudding.
I haven't had a rice pudding.
Just like rice with milk.
What spices do you recall your family using in meals at home?
Yeah, were there any spices? Or was it mostly fresh herbs and chili?
Pretty much fresh. Dried peppers.
But it's not in a way, like in a specific culture, you might use cumin or cardamom or something to make a meal. It was very much like what was in front of you.
Yeah, like what you have.
Today, are there any particular ingredients that you love to put in your cooking? Like when you cook at home, are there certain items that you always have with you, that you always put into your food?
Now? I don’t cook anywhere else. I used to cook, but my wife cooks at home.
I was married to a chef and I did all the cooking. I totally get it, you don’t have to cook when you get home.
But if you were to create a dish, are there any spices or ingredients that you gravitate towards, that you naturally go towards? Like for some people it’s lemon, some people it's salt.
Black pepper, dried chili peppers.
There’s something that came up for me when I was with Pedro's mom, and I wonder if you relate. Your way of thinking, or Pedro’s way of thinking, seems so utterly instinctual to me. Like the way you come up with something. Yes, of course you've had mentorship, but it feels like your palates when you taste something are so instinctual.
When I was speaking to Chef Pedro's mom, I was saying, “You know, your son is extraordinary.” As I say to all the mothers, “Your son is extraordinary, the contribution that he has in our place is so amazing.” And her response was, “Yes, it's because he went to America and he went to school.” There is nothing that Venice High, or any education system, could ever have taught you about your palate.
The reason why people come here is because of you. And Juan and Pedro, and all the other chefs before you, and all the other chefs after you. But it's your palette that drives the food program and the way you combine things, it's not any formal education.
Yeah. Now when I’m here, it’s just sometimes, like, seeing a new visual or something. Being like, okay, what are we gonna try with these?
Is that how the Romano beans came to be? Because I don't know that I've seen the presentation of the Romano beans that way. Have we done that before?
No. We always had braised Romano beans.
It's delicious. It's extraordinary. But I've never seen it done that way before.
They were like, “Oh, there's so much baby zucchini.” And Sam told me Romano beans might be in soon. And I was like, okay, we have this curry aioli, we have baby zucchini, whatever ingredient, and I used the same sauce as Zaatar, and I put it in there, and I was like, “Wow.”
Do you ever doubt yourself?
Yeah, yeah. Sometimes I'll taste something and I like it, but I’m kind of afraid to be like, okay, I'm going to put it on the menu, and they’re going to be like “Why did you put this on the menu? It’s not good.” But yeah, I do doubt sometimes.
Because I have never seen a decision come from you where I'm like, “Oh, my God that feels unthoughtful.” Every dish that you put up feels like you've thought about what you're putting together and why. You always are able to speak to that.
We just made a red walnut tart. Chef Juan was like, “I want to make something with this.” We searched, and I made my own recipe, and it was added to the menu.
That's so great. That must be so satisfying. Because it's not just seeing something come to life, it's actually seeing something come to life and served multiple times over. So there are many people who are having that experience. It's not just like making a meal for your family: everybody eats it and it's done. You're creating something that hundreds of people are eating. It's really beautiful.
Yeah, I want to learn more.
But you've made such an extraordinary transition. And I think the gift of - and dare I say it, I know that sounds horrible - but the gift of Valle closing is we've had this extra time to brainstorm, to support each other, to come up with things. You know, you are the leader of that kitchen. And definitively when they go to New York, like, it's all you, which is great because you had this time to practice your confidence.
The fact that you've taken such a challenging time, where we shut down and we were cooking for people who were out of work, to working at Valle and creating Valle, and then coming back here and reopening in a bigger format than we've ever been used to. You know, we're gonna look back at this time in two years time, five years time, already right now. Using the resources you have, whether it's food, or the humans, what you're creating is extraordinary. I'm really proud to work with you.
Thank you. And I always thank you guys for trusting me and helping me.
You never have to doubt that we trust you. You're amazing to work with, and it's an honor to call you a colleague.
What is your most favorite thing to eat when you're cooking for yourself? I know that you don't cook as much for yourself anymore, but what do you gravitate towards? Is it like pasta?
More like a steak, and fish.
Like a protein. And is it by itself? Or is it paired with something like a salad?
Always paired with vegetables, like whatever is seasonal. Like cauliflower.
Do you have a favorite kind of meat right now? Right now, if you were to cook yourself a steak at home, what would you choose?
Ribeye. My wife likes fish, she’s always like “you should try it.” She loves all the vegetables we have.
The one thing that makes this place so extraordinary is the ability for you to create a complete dish with a vegetable. Like if you eat a vegetable dish, you don't want for anything else, you know what I mean? You honor it in such a beautiful way that if you were a complete carnivore and you came to eat here, you could eat an entire menu of just vegetables and not miss meat at all.
And I say this over and over, Gjelina was the first restaurant, apart from one other that I used to work at in London, where the entirety of the vegetable is celebrated. It's not just a side dish. Like back in the day, if you were vegetarian, you had to order off the sides. I’d order a side of spinach, a side of boiled carrots, a side of broccoli, and it's so uninspiring.
Yeah, I remember the restaurant we used to work at, they had a side of carrots, side of broccolini, side of spinach.