We first met Chef Gerardo Gonzalez last fall when he generously shared with us his short list of New York restaurants. Just one year later, he’s in the midst of an enormous life transition, forgoing the rigidity of running his Chinatown post for a period of travel and special projects — neither of which have yet been formalized. On the very first week of his journey, as we chat with Gerardo, he reflects on his time in New York and expounds on his decision to take a break from it.
So you just left New York?
Yea, I just moved away from New York for a minute to get a little fresh air and perspective.
Where were you before?
I lived in San Francisco in my twenties from 2003-2009. It was a wild time. It just felt like a bunch of kids running around in a Neverland. It was beautiful, but also self destructive. In San Francisco I always felt like culturally I was taking, taking, taking and this was my opportunity to give back. When I started at El Rey, that was a meaningful time for me, and created this kind of biodome for myself and giving myself to New York. I think I was using it as a little redemption.
That’s a beautiful way to think about it. Repaying cultural debts.
It was beautiful, but I wasn't really aware of what was going on around me politically and culturally. My whole world was around: a) that place and b) that industry. But it was a rocket ship that took me to all of these places in just a short time ...I never could’ve imagined it. Working on huge projects, a lot of press, being flown around, etc. My last year at El Rey I started to feel uneasy and noticing a change within myself and not necessarily in the direction I wanted to.
Literally a group of people picked up the cop car and moved it to the side of the road. I was like, ‘Damn.’
What do you think was the catalyst?
I started seeing a lot of issues in the industry in terms of how I wanted to participate in it. That was around the time Black Lives Matter was starting to happen. I remember this one time we ran out of something at El Rey, so I was coming back there from the supermarket. I was crossing the corner of Essex and Houston and a BLM protest came through. It was one of those that shut down the whole city. And I remember crossing the street and going back to El Rey and a cop car came to try and break it up or whatever. The protest was heading eastbound. Literally a group of people picked up the cop car and moved it to the side of the road. I was like, ‘Damn.’
I was really excited to see that action. Walking back to work it dawned on me, like, what is it exactly that you’re doing? At that time we were doing a lot of special dinners. The great thing about El Rey is that I had this creative outlets, but towards the end I felt like they were kind of this monster you had to feed of garnering press. It wasn’t bad, and people were amazingly supportive, but during some of those dinners, I was like, ‘Who exactly am I cooking for?’
Is that what compelled you to want to come into your own space and environment. Was that the progression?
I think that’s kind of when the seed was planted in terms of like I would like to participate in this world. Living in New York, by definition you’re participating in capitalism. It doesn’t matter how radical you are or how considerate you are, just by living there you are a cog. I wanted to figure out is just how i participated in that.
So how did Lalito emerge?
Some extremely supportive customers and I found a space and opened up. Opening week at Lalito was election week, which I think that had a big impact on how things were going to be for me going forward.
Everyone was angry and it felt like there was a major shift. In a lot of ways its weird to think back on that time. I just came up with ideas with how I want to participate. At the end of the day, the things that matter most to me are collaborating and learning. It’s led me on a bumpy road of discovery which I’m still kind of in the midst of. But it’s also led me to some really amazing people and with some ideas to put forward.
Can you say what made the road so bumpy?
Just the sacrifice in personal relationships. That was a major catalyst in me rethinking how much time I was spending at work and how many aspects for my life had been sacrificed for work.
I’m not necessarily afraid of that. But there’s always these elements of like, ‘Am I going to get left behind?’
So you just moved from New York. Was the catalyst for that to sort of invite some introspection into your life?
I moved away from New York, but I’m not sure for how long necessarily. I’m going to be gone at least six months to a year working on projects here or there. I’m not necessarily afraid of that. But there’s always these elements of like, ‘Am I going to get left behind?’ Or, ‘Are you throwing a wrench into your life or career or whatever?’ I’m starting to come back down to earth. None of these things like notoriety or career matter if you’re not taking care of yourself or people around you. So it’s not leaving to be self reflective, it’s just another phase in my life that I’m totally happy about and ready to take on.
Got it. So what are you most looking forward to about that time?
I’m extremely excited about just waking up and cooking. That’s all I want to explore. And read a lot of books and learn a lot and make the most of this time.
Wishing you the best on your new adventures.