This Renowned ‘Comida Chingona’ Chef Is Rising From the COVID-19 Flames

Renowned Chef Silvana Salcido

Chef Silvana Salcido has had to close all her restaurants but one, and she's using it to feed those in need during the pandemic (Photo by Maritza L. Félix)

By Maritza L. Félix

May 4, 2020

As small business owners struggle to survive the pandemic in Arizona, renowned Chef Silvana Salcido won’t quit.

Arizona renowned chef Silvana Salcido’s glasses fog up behind her mask emblazoned with the words ‘Comida Chingona’ in large golden letters. She can’t stop sweating under her disposable gloves. But she keeps them on. She doesn’t want to risk it. For years, Salcido has suffered from sarcoidosis — an inflammatory disease that can appear in almost any body organ, but most often starts in the lungs — and coronavirus could be lethal for her. 

After she got back from a trip to Europe in February, Salcido fell ill. 

“When I got a fever, I really thought that I had coronavirus,” she said. 

So Salcido took a test. It took two weeks for the results to come back. 

“Luckily, it was negative, pero qué pinche susto,” she said. What a scare.

Barrio Café — a fine Mexican food restaurant in Phoenix — was Salcido’s culinary firstborn, opened in 2002. She became famous for her chile en nogada and the pollo poblano. Salcido was so respectful of Mexican recipes and cuisine that other chefs in town called her the “Mexican Food Police.” 

But now, Barrio Café is closed due to the pandemic.

This Renowned ‘Comida Chingona’ Chef Is Rising From the COVID-19 Flames

Although that’s the case, Salcido — with a group of chef friends — is using her kitchen to cook hundreds of meals for the most vulnerable populations in Phoenix. Cooks and volunteers gather every day to feed local doctors and nurses and whoever else needs food. They are also taking all the precautions: they wear masks and gloves, and respect the  recommended six feet distance. 

Not The New Year Plan Salcido Had In Mind

When Salcido turned 40, she cashed in her 401(k) to find herself through food. It was a big risk at the time that seemed to pay off over the years, but today she wonders if it’s worth it to keep her dream alive – especially now after all her restaurants, minus Barrio Café, have closed. 

“I’m sick and tired. What do I have to work for?” she asked. 

For more than two decades, Salcido worked hard to become one of the top Mexican culinary leaders in the United States. In Arizona, she is one of the best-known and respected chefs, and her food has served as inspiration for many restaurants. The art lining the walls of Barrio Café in Phoenix matches the tattoos covering her body – they are everywhere. They represent her passion, culture, and soul.

As part of her New Year resolution, the 59-year-old chef had started the two-year countdown to her retirement. She worked hard after all, so the start of the new year had Salcido imagining an endless ocean view at her home in Rosarito, Baja California, with a simple gourmet dinner, a cold beer, and a Mexican wife. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way of her plans, and Barrio Café is no longer the same.

Before the pandemic, loyal patrons filled the restaurant. Now all Salcido sees are chairs stacked in corners. And where there were once tablecloths and flowers, there are now long metal tables holding dozens of takeout containers. 

Barrio Café Survived, But Salcido Didn’t Get Stimulus 

In this new reality, Salcido’s Barrio Café has survived, but her other restaurants have fallen to the pandemic. 

“Restaurants are my children,” Salcido said from her small makeshift office — a space that  used to be the café bar. “I can tell you what was happening, what I was thinking, where is the influence of food when I create a restaurant … when I do things; I do it with all my heart, just like I have done it with my barrios.”

That’s why it hurt so much to permanently close her other son: Barrio Gran Reserva, a gourmet Mexican restaurant that opened in Phoenix in 2016. But now, Salcido says she doesn’t have the money to keep it running. 

This Renowned ‘Comida Chingona’ Chef Is Rising From the COVID-19 Flames

Salcido did not receive the government economic stimulus for small business owners, which was introduced in early April. The CARES Act earmarked $349 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to help small businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic by giving them a loan to cover their payroll, benefits, utilities and rent or mortgage payments. 

RELATED: Latino and Black Business Owners Are Being Left Behind By the Government’s Small Business Bailout

“I didn’t ask for much, just what I needed to keep it afloat … but it is closed now. I already buried the body,” Salcido said.

Chef Salcido added that she’s furious most of the first round of the economic stimulus was aimed at saving big companies, while small entrepreneurs like her are barely keeping afloat.

“Of course, people like me are never going to be prioritized, because although we are the first ones waiting in line, they always make us step aside. The doors have already been opened for the privileged,” she said. 

Salcido Makes A Moral Decision

When the bank representative told her there was no more federal money to help small business owners like her, Salcido said she withdrew all the money from her bank accounts to continue paying her employees while the lockdown continues in Arizona.

“How can I be lying down all day looking for Netflix series, when my employees are going crazy,” Salcido said. 

This Renowned ‘Comida Chingona’ Chef Is Rising From the COVID-19 Flames

In that moment, she also realized she needed to say goodbye to her plans of moving to a Mexican beach. Retirement is now just a fantasy. 

According to the Arizona Restaurant Association, between 8,500 and 9,000 restaurants exist in Arizona. Many of them have closed permanently. 

“The Barrio Gran Reserva will never open its doors again, but I hope I can save the Barrio Café, although it will no longer be the same,” said Salcido.

Latino Business Owners Like Salcido Will Close Their Doors For Good

According to the United States Chamber of Commerce, one in four small businesses has closed indefinitely due to the pandemic. More than half of small businesses in the country are temporarily closed, and most entrepreneurs fear the economic impact will force them to close their businesses forever. 

Latino entrepreneurs in Arizona could never have predicted this bleak scenario. An optimistic DATOS 2019 report from the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce had identified Latinos as an economic engine for the state. Latino buying power in Arizona was expected to surpass $57 billion by 2020. But Latinos do not only spend, they also invest. They accounted for nearly a quarter of new entrepreneurs in 2017 in Arizona.

“There are about 120,000 Hispanic businesses in Arizona. Sixty-five percent of those businesses have been in the market less than five years and are at that critical point in business,” said Carlos Velasco, a business consultant in Phoenix. “They have been hit hard and it’s happening the same all over the country.”

Velasco pointed out that the stimulus would cover payroll and business expenses, but it just wasn’t enough to sustain businesses long-term. 

“The funds are insufficient compared to the need,” he said. “They run out of money the first day, and for some business owners, trying to get a loan with the Small Business Administration is very complicated.”

Velasco confessed that even his company, Novle, has been hit hard. He is also seeking federal funds. He had no luck the first time he applied.

The Paycheck Protection Program has barely reached Latino small business owners like Salcido or Velasco. The initial $342 billion ran out in the first days. Last week, the Senate approved an additional $310 billion in additional funding.  Chef Salcido applied for more than $200,000. Velasco said he needs $30,000.

Where Salcido Goes From Here

But even if Salcido gets the federal funds to cover the expenses she has already paid from her own pocket, that money will not give her the chance to enjoy margaritas on the beach when she turns 62, as she planned. The damage is done. The ravages of the pandemic are already visible in the restaurant and in her.

“I am not the same and my Barrio Café, if it survives — I knock on wood — it will not be the same either,” she said.

This Renowned ‘Comida Chingona’ Chef Is Rising From the COVID-19 Flames

On May 5, there will be no Mexican celebration at Barrio Café.  That will also be the last day Salcido and her volunteers will serve food as a community service. It will mark 47 days of feeding her barrio. After that, she plans to remodel her kitchen and have artists paint the restaurant walls as she configures a new menu — one full of memories from Barrio Gran Reserva and hopes for the new version of Barrio Café. 

“Food is love and it is the best thing I know how to do, and when I do it with a lot of love, it turns out bien machín,” she said.

But Salcido doesn’t want to stay in the kitchen. She wants to write a book of recipes and stories and become a Latina trailblazer in public service.  

“I want to know what I can possibly do to get into politics, because what is happening is not right,” she said.

Very soon, Salcido said, her name may be found not only on the menu of her restaurant — but on an electoral ballot. 

“We may be little, but we are powerful, and we are more powerful than we think.”

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