Jen Zavala: the tamales lady
A brief history of a woman who found her Mexican roots - and her purpose in life - in a restaurant kitchen.
On the outside, her arms are a canvas in which the ink reveals the way this woman reads and inhabits the world. On the inside, her blood carries ancestral information that manifests itself in her features and becomes tangible in her dishes.
This is Jennifer Zavala, transgressive and tender, a "weirdo" on the Philadelphia gastronomic scene, for several reasons. First because she is not from here: she was born in Montana, grew up in Connecticut and became a chef in California. Second, because she is a woman, a mother and Hispanic, and although - culturally speaking - in many homes in Latin America kitchens are still exclusively female territories, here in Philadelphia it is exotic to see a woman commanding a team of cooks, even more if she is Latina.
In addition, Zavala is a chef "without a kitchen", a renegade of the restaurants that opened her own catering company and from time to time is seen tucked into a van selling tamales parked in any corner of the city.
When defining herself, Zavala takes a deep breath, thinks for a couple of seconds and releases a definition built from the roles she plays today: "I feel that I am many things”.
“I am a mom, which is the most important thing to me. I am a cook, and this is the second most important thing to me, and I am Latina". Characteristics that, according to her, have acted as a force in defining their course in life.
But as exotic as she might be on the Philadelphian culinary scene, Zavala is also an integral part of it: she came to the city 10 years ago and since then she has become a kind of itinerant artist who has toured through several of the best restaurants in downtown: Xochitl, El Camino Real, Amada, Interstate Draft House, Silk City and Farmer's Cabinet are part of this woman’s gastronomic list. She is in her forties, a mother of a boy who does not exceed 10 and a wife of a musician who accompanies her in each of her undertakings.
Zavala jumped to local fame long before her fleeting breakthrough in the reality show Top Chef in 2009. And as a good Latina, she always lands on her feet. She went one place to another until she decided that the best way to continue with her passion was to have her own space, working at her own pace and having a closer contact with her guests.
She rescued a short Ford 87 bus and transformed it into the famous - and also fleeting - Cherry Bomb Bus, with which she travels across Philadelphia offering a perfect mix between the Mexican flavor and the rest of the local street food.
Six months ago she hit the news for having rescued her husband's shabby van and turned it into another streetcar, dedicating herself to sell Mexican tamales without asking anyone's permission (she bailed the excess of municipal bureaucracy necessary to get a license).
But how is it that this woman - half white, half Mexican and mother, became who she is today?
When she tells her story, Jen Zavala sounds melancholic. She claims to have grown up in a dysfunctional family (her parents – a man of Mexican origin and woman of Italian origin - divorced) was a difficult experience for a girl who was still struggling to define her identity.
"I was lost. When I left Connecticut I left all my Mexicanness behind and I came and lived in a white community where I was the only brunette." Feeling different and disconnected from her environment was the norm in her adolescence, until back in the early 90's, when she was 15, she left home and started working as a waitress in a restaurant.
It was in the kitchen - among waiters, dishwashers and cooks - where Jen Zavala found her north: "[Entering the kitchen and seeing other Latinos] It gave me a sense of belonging. Because I felt they needed me and I wanted to be useful".
There are already more than twenty years of tears and successes in the kitchens. Today, Jen Zavala, Mexican at heart and American in word (regrets not being able to speak Spanish), is dedicated to vindicate her Latin roots through a careful practice of the culinary arts.
From the south of the city, she feels that her mission is to make a small contribution to make the world a better place, so that Latin cuisine is recognized and we are able to sit at the same table and celebrate the difference.
This Tuesday, July 11, at 5:00 pm, will be the second meeting of the Latinos Living Healthy Cooking Series with which AL DÍA and Independence Blue Cross bring together the most outstanding Hispanic chefs of the urban scene to reflect on the Latin food - and its nutritional character - in the midst of the Philadelphian gastronomic scene.
On this occasion, the special guest is the chef Jen Zavala, known for leading the kitchens of some of the most important restaurants in the city, as well as being the "Tamales lady" that on board a van provides a mouthful of the best Mexican meal from her ancestors to the people of Philadelphia. To attend this appointment, register for free in