Heading to the back of the Grant Park Farmers Market on Sunday mornings, people will find chef Maricela Vega serving food and selling prepackaged dishes through her business Chico (formerly Chicomecóatl). On one particular Sunday, Vega is preparing sopes (a fried masa base topped with beans and other savory toppings) cooked on a small grill, with the option to add a fried egg.
It’s been a year since Vega left her position as executive chef of 8ARM. After accepting the role in 2019, she filled the menu at the popular Ponce de Leon Avenue restaurant with pre-Hispanic dishes and fresh ingredients from local farms. A year later, she faced the pandemic, quickly shifting her team and operations to takeout and creating a CSA, with proceeds going toward donating free boxes of local fruits and vegetables to undocumented immigrants in Atlanta.
Following her departure in 2021, Vega headed to Mexico for two months to learn more about her family’s corn-farming legacy and to begin prepping the land to once again grow corn. It’s “the whole origin of creating this business,” she says, which is meant to pay tribute to her family and prompt the next step in her journey as a chef: to open a tortilleria and masa shop in Atlanta.
Vega jokes that some people thought she ended up moving to Mexico permanently, something the chef discovered while conducting a Q&A session on her Instagram page.
“I frequent Mexico because my [corn] importers are down there and I do a lot of farm visits,” Vega says. “We’re slowly trying to get the land revitalized where my family lived, the one my grandfather left behind,” she explains of the family’s volcanic land in southern Guanajuato. “I just go back there a lot because that’s a part of my business and my future.”
From those first pop-up Mesoamerican dinners at her home in the Mechanicsville neighborhood with Chicomecóatl to her current Atlanta farmers market offerings, sharing dishes using heirloom corn continues to be Vega’s passion.
In the summer of 2021, Vega held “cenas de jardín,” or garden dinners, at her home. People arrived to cocktails from local bartenders and then sat in the back garden surrounded by vegetables growing in sprawling plots. She invited chefs from around Atlanta and the South to collaborate with her, including La Chingana pop-up chef and friend Arnaldo Castillo, who is preparing to open Peruvian restaurant Tio Lucho’s this summer in Poncey-Highland.
Now she’s laser-focused on ramping up the wholesale operations for Chico. The bread and butter of the business, she says, will be her tortillas, tamales, and tostadas.
Initially slated to launch in February, issues with a machine that Vega works with to perfect her masa recipe pushed the date for Chico into the fall. This is where Vega’s “masa clique” (how she refers to the network of support from people around the country) comes in handy. They help each other out by trading information and tips about tortilla presses and other machinery used to make masa, as well as recipes.
But like most start-up businesses, Vega faces other challenges, including financial ones. “I’m putting so much money in and the return [is not there yet]. That’s my motivator to have the wholesale account up and running [for Chico] by fall and get it sorted out,” says Vega.
When asked if she would ever consider returning to restaurants, Vega says it’s unlikely. She anticipates growing Chico into more farmers markets around Atlanta, hosting collaborative chef dinners, and finding a warehouse space that allows her to offer counter service by 2024. Vega’s hope is to one day sell her tortillas and masa at Atlanta markets like Savi Provisions and Sevananda.
The dinners she hosts will eventually evolve further too, into fine dining tasting menus using crops from her back garden in order to “re-root back with what was available and grown.”
“I do a lot of dinners around the country, but I’m trying to focus on doing some here in Atlanta with a few folks. I have a whole masa clique around the nation, so I’ll be inviting all my peeps to pull up to cook,” she says. “And they might be back in the garden, but those might be a little more refined.”
The warehouse space she’s seeking should afford Vega the ability to distribute Chico products throughout Georgia. Vega recently reached out to Staplehouse chef and co-owner Ryan Smith to learn more about their counter service operation at the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood market and how she might apply that to the counter service she plans to offer at Chico in the future.
Food served from the Chico counter won’t be just tacos. Vega wants to feature five dishes on the menu, alternating between different masa products. It’s similar to how she serves food now at farmers markets on the weekends.
“And in that space, maybe once a month, we’ll have very focused, multiple-course dinners and still express that creativity,” says Vega of continuing these dining events once Chico lands a permanent home.
Even the ceramic cups and bowls used for serving will take inspiration from corn, and Vega’s travels and research in Mexico. She once took a ceramics class while visiting Oaxaca that used clay harvested from in between corn crops. That method of ceramics-making brings everything full circle for Vega and for the mission behind Chico.
For Vega, corn has always been at the center of her cooking, and now it’s become the center of her fledgling masa and Mexican provisions business.
Catch chef Maricela Vega popping up with Chico at local farmers markets on the weekend. Preorder tortillas and spicy salsa macha online for pick up at the Morningside Farmers Market or Grant Park Farmers Market.
Muriel Vega is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes about food, the Arts, and culture. She has written for the Washington Post, Eater, DWELL, Outside Magazine, Atlanta magazine, and more.