The world swiftly took notice of chef Diana Dávila when she opened Mi Tocaya Antojería five years ago. At Dávila’s Logan Square restaurant, her narrative on the foods of her heritage — from summers spent in Mexico with a grandmother who nourished Dávila with homemade traditional fare, to the seasonal bounty she sources from across the Midwest — provide a much-needed perspective for Chicago’s dining scene. While the city remains rich in Mexican culture, few women have been lauded for its cuisine (especially amid restaurants considered to be high-end), even though they are the keepers of the culinary traditions that we love.
“Tocaya” or “namesake” pays homage to one’s roots. And we can’t help but wonder about all the seeds the mother of two, wife, second-generation restauranteur, and multiple James Beard-nominated chef is cultivating. Dávila spoke with us frankly and genuinely, a style that has become her signature. She shared personal milestones underscoring her year, the challenges she’s facing, plans for an exciting new project ahead, and how she’s prioritizing motherhood and self-care.
RESY: You’ve described yourself as being “Midwest-Mexican.” What does that mean?
Diana Dávila: The same way that I get inspired by my heritage and my Mexican culture, I’m also very much a Midwestern girl as well. So I just feel like the food that I make is always going to have that blend because it’s part of my identity and part of what makes me feel at home.
I’m happy that I moved away from Chicago for a bit, years ago. I love my city, and moving away really put things into perspective. I feel like for my whole life I’ve always heard about Midwestern hospitality, but I didn’t understand what it was until I left for a while. There’s nothing like it — people are genuinely nice here. I can walk down the street and people will catch you and say, “hello.” It’s those little things that you may take for granted. Also, because I’ve been working in this industry since I was a teenager, I can say the camaraderie between chefs, cooks, and everybody in this industry — I feel like it’s genuinely supportive.
I’ve also had the opportunity to travel across the Midwest a lot for a project that was very farm-to-table and focused on farming techniques, preservation, and the business of farming. Getting to meet farmers and their families; seeing how they run their family business then hand it down to the next generation — it grounds you. There’s a lot of really beautiful farm life here. It’s not just in California (laughs).
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You’ve recently celebrated two milestones — your 40th birthday and Mi Tocaya’s fifth year. Do you feel like you’ve stepped into a new season of life?
It’s definitely not the way that I wanted to start my 40s. Over the last two years, I just have not taken care of myself. I’ve had those moments this year when I look into the mirror and I’m like, “Who is that?” I don’t feel great about myself and that really sucks because it deters from my confidence. I wish that I had more time to take care of myself and that’s something that I have to create. Right now, it’s my top priority. I just signed up for a workout class at the Y that I’m starting next week.
With Mi Tocaya, however, I feel great! But it’s been five years and we’re trying to get a new project going. We have a lot of decisions to make, which is tough because they are life-changing decisions. Before, I was younger, naive, and relaxed. I just went ahead without even thinking about all of these things, just go, go, go. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but being naive had its benefits. Now, being older and a parent, there’s more on the line. My husband and I recently bought out our Mi Tocaya investor, and for this project we’re asking ourselves if we want an investor again or not. It’s hard to do everything when you’re a chef-owner. We ask ourselves if we are biting off more than we can chew. In many ways, opening a new restaurant is just like having another child, and we’re trying to decide how to get there without straining ourselves.
I love hospitality. I love restaurants so much. To me it’s a sense of live theater.
It’s very hard to run a restaurant right now because the cost of operating is insane. There are increases on everything across the board. We put in so much work, just so much labor to create what we do and I always feel so bad about having to raise our prices yet again. And we didn’t get the Restaurant Revitalization Fund money which would have helped us tremendously. Yeah, we kind of have a chip on our shoulders about that one because we felt like the relief fund was tailor-made for a business like ours. When we didn’t get it and then we saw all the names that did, and some of them are friends, so it’s nothing against them personally — I don’t mean it that way at all, it was just really aggravating and it hurt. We probably wouldn’t be in the financial position that we’re in right now if we would have gotten that money. But I don’t want to paint the picture like we’re going to close, however, we are just barely breaking even because of how difficult operating is right now. That definitely was not where we thought we were gonna be at this point.
I guess it’s hard for me because, you know, I love being my own boss, but at the same time, I don’t love everything that goes with it. It takes up a huge amount of time. And that’s less time that I get to do what I truly love which is continuing to learn about Mexican cuisine, cook, be creative, and be more of a teacher to everybody there at the restaurant. I love hospitality. I love restaurants so much. To me it’s a sense of live theater. At the end of the day, all I want to do is cook and be merry. But operating is a whole different ballgame now and we’re adjusting.
Do all of the recognitions and awards you’ve received add any type of pressure to your planning process for the next project?
I don’t trip on that. We’ve had this project in mind since before the pandemic and we’re close to it. I’m just happy that we didn’t sign anything before the pandemic because that would have been crazy. I’ve always loved fine dining and tasting menus, which will be part of the project. It will be an amazing thing — I can’t express that enough! When your heart is in something and what you’re doing is beautiful and powerful, you’re just so excited to be able to create.
In response to the pandemic, you started the Todos Ponen Project as way to help feed your employees as well as neighbors who were food insecure. What does Todos Ponen look like today?
I feel like you always get your best ideas when s–t’s about to hit the fan or when you’re backed to into a corner. It was November 2020, there was no indoor dining, and it just dawned on me that we could do something to help our employees who couldn’t receive unemployment and our Logan Square neighborhood community which is predominantly Latino. The meals that we were doing at Todos Ponen were homestyle foods that your mother or father would normally make at home, like puerco en salsa verde and guisado de res.
I had worked on the Power of 10 Initiative by Erik Bruner-Yang in D.C. when we first opened and it helped us out tremendously. So, I kind of modeled Todos Ponen after what Bruner-Yang did. We partnered with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association — those women are just so incredible. They really do work so hard to listen and provide resources. And we partnered with DishRoulette Kitchen which is also really great; they help small businesses all the time. The goal was to raise funds to keep running the program and we tried a lot of things, like a chefs interview series weekly on Instagram Live.
I saw that series and enjoyed it. I appreciated that your lineup was diverse and didn’t feature the same few chefs that we hear from often. Was that intentional?
Yes, that was on purpose. I thought back to myself as a kid and I never grew up seeing anybody who looked like me, who was a woman, who was Latina. It was always your typical white male chef, and nothing against that, I’ve worked with some incredible ones, but it would have been cool to see someone else. They’re just different narratives.
A lot of times we only talk about the food and what we’re making, but at this time I feel like telling the stories of how they started and where they are now is essential. At the end of the day, I just wanted to tell the stories of these fantastic people who I admire, some of them I knew, some of them I didn’t, and now we’ve become really good friends. I did want to have people of color and a diverse group from every sort of background whether it was fine dining, hotels, TV, or pop-ups. I wanted young people to know there’s a million things that you could do with food, you don’t have to own a restaurant or be in fine dining.
The money that we made for Todos Ponen was all from people donating which was really touching and great. We were able to make about $15,000. But in the end, no organization with the resources that we needed picked up the program and we needed much more funding to keep it going. I tried to push it so hard. There’s all these places that have so much money. I felt bad because I wanted to continue to do it but without funding and also being an owner-operator, I couldn’t run both alone. That was a sad reality because our entire team enjoyed it and we made so many connections to people from our neighborhood. I really want to continue that.
It would be great to do it over the summer now that school is out because feeding kids is a huge deal. My husband and I are working parents and we order takeout all the time, more than I would like to admit, because it’s just hard to do it all. It takes a village to have a family and not everybody has that type of support system.
Do your two kids spend a lot of time at the restaurant?
Well, we try not to just because we don’t like cooping them up inside. When it’s nice out they get to play outside. But they do spend time here during the school year. I picked them up every day and they would come in around family meal, eat and say hi to the gang, and share their lives with everybody in the restaurant. I’m going to miss that time.
Milestone birthdays can prompt us to think about all of the things we’d like to accomplish. Have you given any thought to the legacy you’d like to leave?
I don’t know about legacy. I want to travel more. I haven’t been able to travel to Mexico as much as I would like with my family. I would love to write a couple of books.
That was my last question! When is the book coming?
(Laughs) I was given the opportunity and it was just — I feel like I always pass on great opportunities because I’m not ready yet. Sometimes I feel bad about missing out, especially when you see other people doing it and how great it is for them. But at the same time, my kids are little right now and it’s really a priority to spend time with them because I’m never going to recoup that time. I have my whole life to write a book — it’s not a priority. Right now, I want to make sure that I’m present for my children.
And that’s the last thing about legacy — I really want to make sure that my children find something that they love and can dedicate their working life to so that doesn’t quite seem like work. I think that’s really important. I don’t even really believe in luck, but the one thing that I knew at a very young age, is what I wanted to do. It’s one of the luckiest things that’s ever happened to me. And that I’ve been able to do this for so long. I love what I do and nothing has changed in that respect.