After running Meso-American pop-up Chicomecóatl for the last two years, 2018 Eater Award winner chef Maricela Vega decided to return to steady kitchen work in March. Vega took over as executive chef at 8ARM following the departure of chef Keith Remes, now at Golden Eagle in Reynoldstown.
For Vega, the constant hustle and exhaustion of running the pop-up serving hyper-local and mostly vegetarian pre-Hispanic cuisine, coupled with her work for various food justice organizations, finally caught up with her. She’s taking a break to concentrate on self-care and to save for the future — owning a tortilleria and masa shop in Atlanta.
8ARM allows Vega to hone her skills working with ingredients she knows and loves, while showcasing her versatility as a cook and creating dishes beyond those she’s become known for through the pop-up.
Vega’s distinct stamp can already be seen on the menu in the two months she’s lead the kitchen alongside her morning sous, Yola Ksiazczykand, and evening sous, Duy Huynh. She insists both chefs incorporate their own heritages into the new dishes for the restaurant.
“I don’t want to build the new menu with entirely Mexican dishes. I want to explore other roots in the kitchen from Duy, who is Vietnamese, and Yola, who has Polish roots.”
The pork and lettuce wraps, for example, are filled with Vietnamese and Thai flavors. Vega asked Huynh to make a braise “that spoke to him.” The braised pork includes a sweet potato relish made with pineapple, ginger, and soy and fish sauces, then topped with shaved pumpkin, green strawberries, sesame oil, and a side of crispy rice.
Poached shrimp and grilled octopus swim in the juices of red and purple kale garnished with a bit of aioli and green strawberries for the aguachile. In-season Sea Island peas whipped up into a sort of hummus with broccoli, chard stems, and pickled raisins speaks of springtime in the South. Vega’s popular Chicomecóatl tamales she sells at markets like Third Street Goods in Grant Park incorporate Sea Island peas and other seasonal ingredients, rather than the oft-used pork or chicken bases. The tamales are bound for 8ARM’s late night menu soon.
She’s known throughout Atlanta’s local food community for her unwavering dedication to sourcing as fresh and as in-season ingredients as possible. If an ingredient is no longer available from a local farmer or grower she uses, Vega removes the dish. It means 8ARM’s menu is subject to change often, and on a dime.
Vega recently took the half chicken off the menu after the Georgia farm she sources from could no longer provide poultry following damage sustained during Hurricane Michael last fall. The farm simply ran out of chickens and needs to replenish the flock.
Many of the fishermen Vega sources Gulf oysters and soft shell crabs from lost boats during the hurricane.
“Sure, our menu changes a lot but, we’re depending on what the Earth and farmers provide us. That’s the way food should and does work.”
Supporting small, local farms and working for food justice causes have been ingrained in Vega since childhood. Her grandparents owned land on which they grew corn around Guanajuato in central Mexico for decades. She often visited them during the summer, watching her grandparents work the land and harvest their corn. Vega remembers needing to boil water for hot baths, once being taken to the water source several miles away.
Following the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1993 between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, Vega says corn from other countries began out-pricing Mexican corn. Other countries grew and sold Mexico’s cash crop faster, cheaper, and in larger quantities. Many small farms, like Vega’s grandparents, simply couldn’t keep up.
“We take for granted in America how convenient our access to food and water is here. We can just turn on the tap or head to the grocery store,” Vega explains. “That’s not true for many countries, including Mexico.”
The family still owns the land in Mexico but, no one has farmed it for years. She hopes to change that in the future. Most of the family emigrated to the United States, settling in Orange County, California where Vega was born. She and her parents later moved from California to the Dalton area in northwest Georgia for more and better job opportunities.
Vega wants to carry on her family’s legacy working with corn to eventually open her Atlanta tortilleria and masa shop. The store would sell wholesale tamales and empanadas, include fresh produce from farmers she’s worked with for years, and afford her the space and opportunity to make and distribute tortillas at fair prices, especially to underserved brown communities throughout metro Atlanta. Vega plans on accepting SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and EBT as forms of payment at her shop.
“When I started Chicomecóatl a couple of years ago, I wanted to focus on de-colonizing Mexican food, providing access to it, and really embrace vegetables in my cooking, which is a big part of the diet in pre-Hispanic food,” Vega says. “I do think a lot about my green footprint here, and try to reduce the amount of meat I use as much as possible in my cooking.”
Even as Chicomecóatl idles for now, the purpose behind it is still very much alive in Vega.
“Working at 8ARM is giving me a breather from the pop-up hustle. But, I know what I want to do in the future, and this is just part of the path I have to take to get there.”