In a year that needed strong, brilliant women at the industry's forefront, chef/owner Diana Dávila made a timely comeback, opening a lively, Logan Square spot that takes you on a trip to Mexico. We chatted with her about learning to balance a restaurant budget, and how she's been able to garner such a steady stream of (well deserved) press.
Photo of Diana Dávila, chef/owner of Mi Tocaya Antojería, by Taylor Glascock.
Congratulations on an incredible first year. Can you tell me a little bit about Mi Tocaya's first year? How has the restaurant evolved from opening day? The first year has been crazy. Time goes fast and there’s a lot to juggle. I’ve opened restaurants before - new construction and turn key - but your own is different. It’s your bank account. Knowing how much money everything costs and how to allocate a budget is difficult. I had no idea how many thousand dollar expenses would come up...
I’m a cook first, so it’s natural for me to lead with food, and I’m very focused on what I want to convey. So that comes naturally - the stories that make the dishes. But what I’ve learned is that you can’t do everything, so you only do what is essential. And when it comes down to that, does it really matter that we don’t have the most expensive plates? Does that affect the value of the food? At other restaurants, it’s very easy to get wide eyed (when it’s not your money). I want to make my own tortillas, my own pickles, but all of that increases labor cost. I only want to use local ingredients, but all of that costs money. How beneficial is a Paco Jet when balanced against the P&L? I’ve cooked at a lot of restaurants where you have these tools, but this time around I really had to scale back. Maybe a lack of budget helps me be more creative.
Also, the balance of being chef owner is so hard so you need to set realistic goals. We beat our projections, but when you have money coming in it’s really easy to keep spending it. It’s easy to lose sight of how much money you’re losing. And that is the most challenging thing: knowing your limits, knowing what you want to convey, while fostering the environment you need for sustainability. That’s why the cooks, servers, and employees want to be here. They want a piece of me.
Your Press page is very long for only having been open a little more than a year. How have you been able to keep up such consistent press, and how do you think it has impacted the restaurant and your career? There have been an explosion of restaurants, and press behind it. I’m grateful for it, but it goes both ways. Sometimes I feel like I get press because I’m a woman making Mexican food, and they’re covering it because of what’s going on in the world. I’ll take it because PR is fucking expensive. But the other part of me thinks it’s the energy I put into this. Every dish has a story, each one is attached to a memory or a moment in time. I’m a hippy in that way—I believe energy is transcendent. I’m a positive person. I don’t get angry, and this is how I express myself. So maybe, just maybe, if you put yourself out there and people can taste your food and feel your energy then they’ll really like it. And maybe that’s the magic that keeps the press coming. It’s probably a bit of both.
I’m focused on my craft, my skill, and my voice. I don’t look at what other people are doing. I’m trying to be confident and vulnerable with my food. Nobody wants to get critiqued, but I’m confident in what I cook because it’s me.
Photo by Jude Goergen.
Coming off of such a successful year, what's next for you? It’s been a whirlwind. I finally feel organized. I have a GM, a Beverage Director, and a reliable chef team that I’ve trained and feel confident in. I’m excited for 2018 because it will give me the opportunity to embrace myself more in terms of inspiration and creativity. I’ll be able to nurture my dishes and perfect them more. Last year, I didn’t really have the time to do that. Making a dish is an ongoing process, so I’m excited to be able to focus more on the food, and furthering my own knowledge. I’ll travel to Mexico to visit my family, and come back to a team I trust with more ideas. I would never want another Mi Tocaya. This is, in many ways, an extension of my home. It would be really hard for me to step away from this, there’s so much I want to reinvest here before doing another restaurant. One thing I really do want to do, which my husband will laugh at, is open my own mill. I’ve explored a lot of farms and done seed research. I studied the process of nixtamal for masa. So if there’s anything else I want to do, it would be to open up my own mill or “molino” on the north side. Masa is a cornerstone of Mexican food, and I feel a responsibility to attest to that. I’d choose a couple of corn varieties, one heirloom, one unique one, and sell masa to the neighborhood. Maybe even make tortillas for other restaurants. That would be special. It would nurture Mi Tocaya and save money, too. One restaurant can only be so profitable...!
Finally, what advice do you have for chefs, owners, and managers in this industry? Some general advice for cooks aspiring to be chefs or to open their own restaurants: you have to work at your craft. You have to have patience. When I was growing up, you had to work somewhere for a year just to say you worked there. You have to set goals for yourself. It’s not about the hottest restaurants or biggest chefs. What do you want to learn? Align yourself with the right people, and give yourself the time to learn from that restaurant or chef. Hopefully one day you will find your vision or style and then learn to execute it. And that’s part of what makes a good chef. Vision and insight into what you want to create. Patience is a big deal! Nothing is easy. Be appreciative to every position within the restaurant. Cooks are getting paid to learn their craft, so understand the importance of all members of a restaurant.
Lead by example. This is a people business, so treat them with respect and love. That’s the mother in me.
A big thanks to Diana for offering her time to speak with us and for her partnership with Reserve. Do you too want to be featured? Email your Restaurant Success Manager and let us know!