When I first wrote about chef Maricela Vega in back in June 2018, Atlanta was just learning of the burgeoning talent as she sold tamales through her business, Chicomecóatl. After landing the lead chef gig at 8Arm, Vega found herself in the national spotlight with multiple features in publications such as Bon Appétit. But after two years at the helm of the funky Ponce de Leon mainstay owned by Nhan Le, Vega has announced her last day will be April 17. She will host a series of Mexican menus for her final month as chef, and after that, she’s got major plans for Chicomecóatl, ones that have been in the works for a long time.
“All of us wish that last year was different. It was like we were just getting ready to do our thing and now the vibe is completely different,” Vega says about her departure from 8Arm. “I’ve lost my entire crew, basically. I needed to start focusing on really getting my work through Chico launched. The goal is to, hopefully [by] 2022, enter the co-op world and sell my products, which are going to be tamales, tortillas, tostadas, and hot sauces.”
I spoke with her about her decision to leave the restaurant, where her cuisine was described by our critic Christiane Lauterbach as “wildly different and deliciously subversive,” and her plans to make her long-term goals finally come to fruition.
Let’s talk about this menu that you’re doing before you leave because it sounds super exciting.
I’m organizing it and trying to get some details together, but I might just keep our traditional eight-item menu. I’m hopefully getting dessert features. There’s three girlfriends that I have that I would love to have do special desserts each week. Each week, the menu is going to change. We’ll have four special menus, and will feature three female pastry chefs that I think are doing excellent work in the city. [View the first menu here.]
Is the reason that you’re leaving twofold—that you’re ready to leave 8Arm and to focus on the Chicomecóatl venture?
Honestly, it’s all of it. I was making tamales in between [working at 8Arm], and when you make masa, or anything with tamales, I like to dedicate that time. If I’m rushed, I refuse to make it. I’m like, you’re not going to rush me, I want to take my time, I want to make sure that I’m enjoying this and that I’m finishing the product the way it should be. [I] was feeling that way with trying to tether Chico during tamale season. At 8Arm, it kind of felt like I was cheating on both because both [projects] require a lot of energy. I feel like one week I’d pay more attention to 8Arm, and the next week would be more Chico. It’s not a good balance for your personal life, but also for the work that you’re creating. Mistakes start to happen; it just doesn’t feel good.
I have a really good relationship with Nhan, so once I started to feel [this way], I’d just call him or shoot him a message. And I was like, I think this is happening, but I’m not sure, and I just want to let you know. Then the more and more you sit with it, it’s just like, okay, this is going to happen. I just got to do this. This work is going to take a long time.
[My] end goal is to actually start farming and revitalizing the piece of land [in Mexico] that my grandfather left behind when he passed away. I can’t do all three, but if I’m with Chico, I can set up my production. Then I can leave for like a month, go to Mexico, and start prepping that, which is basically what’s going to happen when I leave 8Arm. I’m going to be going to San Miguel de Allende to help a chef friend, and then on the weekends I’ll have four days off, and on those four days, I’ll just travel South to my family’s village. I’m just going to go for a month and a half to start getting stuff together—do a land assessment, figure out what cover crops I can start. This place hasn’t been touched in over 20 years, so I basically have my work cut out for me.
Since I interviewed you for the magazine a few years ago, so much has happened to you on a national level. You’ve become a nationally lauded chef. What has that journey been like for you?
Definitely a lot of pressure to try to make sure that all my decisions are well thought out and that I’m doing my research properly. I guess in a way I might’ve manifested it, because I’ve always mentioned to folks part of the reason why I took on the executive chef was to play a leadership position in a way. And to have other young women of color look up and be like, Oh, this lady doing this work. And how my work is sourcing, and everything regarding that aspect, and just full circle taking everyone into consideration. It was very difficult.
You have so many fans. Where can they find you in the future when you’re not in Mexico?
That is the thing that we’re going to be focusing on this late summer-fall; it will be kind of like a pop-up tour in a way. We’re going to have to figure out how things progress in the Covid sector of the world, with healthcare guidelines and everything. But [I’d like to go] throughout the entire Southeast, I guess like New Orleans, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Nashville, Asheville, Charleston, maybe Jacksonville, other little cities in the South, where I can go and do tamale popups and just kind of put my masa work on display. And that’ll hopefully pick up and people will want me in their co-op stores in 2022.
Can you talk about the masa that you source?
I work with a Mexican-based company whose values are strictly with the farmer and also keeping seed restoration inline. To have that direct connection, that is the dream. I’m living the dream right now. I don’t think people understand this, but there’s an entire network of corn people in the U.S. And we’re all kind of connected to the corn people in Mexico. Hopefully in five years, I’ll be sourcing from myself, buying my own corn from the land that I’m working on from my grandfather. That’s the big goal right there.
It’s always cool to see someone from Atlanta do really big things, and the way you change the narrative about food and female chefs is so exciting. It’s great to see you pivot back to your original goal.
It’s moments like this fucked up past year that also make you want to align yourself as best as you can. And understanding to be forgiving of yourself. It like drove me to just say, let’s do this. I feel like I’m doing all the proper work and research to support all that. I feel good about it; I feel confident.