Chef Chat: Silvana Salcido Esparza, Barrio Cafe

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When she was 19, Silvana Salcido Esparza left her family's Mexican bakery in Merced, California, and moved to downtown Miami to work in international banking.

"Columbians would come into my office with paper bags full of $100,000 in each bag," she says.

It was a far cry from the life she left back home in California, and just as far from the life she leads now.

As it turns out, the food business runs in her veins. Esparza left the banking world, the beaches of Miami and the Columbian cartels for the family bakery. She postponed her formal education at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute for a year when her mother, a cook herself, was diagnosed with cancer.

"I assisted her with her cooking and then I cooked with her, and then eventually I cooked for her," she says.

And she kept cooking. Today, Esparza is the co-owner and chef of one of the Valley's most adored restaurants, Barrio Café, located in Phoenix's own barrio (for the Spanish-impaired, that's neighborhood) near 16th St. and Thomas.

"My purpose is to improve this block, this neighborhood," she says. And that she has. Instead of putting her restaurant in Paradise Valley or Scottsdale, this member of the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame (2004 Culinary Chef Extraordinaire) chose her neighborhood based more on culture than trend.

It was not a surprising move, if you know this chef -- and her philosophy on what's cool.

In 2000, on the dawn of her 40th birthday, Esparza sold everything she had (except her '68 VW) and went to Mexico on the pretense of studying with an unnamed celebrity chef who lived and worked there.

She quit almost immediately, choosing instead to zig-zag her way across the country on public buses. She spent a year sleeping on villagers' floors by night and cooking with them by day. She traveled deep into Mexico, meeting the people, learning the food and bringing back her own style of cooking to Barrio Café.

"I'm here to get in touch with my soul, to find my voice, to find what it is I'm supposed to be doing," she says she told the locals. "And I'm going to go back and I'm going to represent you and Mexico."

Represent, she has. The Barrio is warm and unpretentious (she laid the tiles; her sister made the curtains). And her "Mexican-inspired" cuisine, as Esparza puts it, is based on the purity of the ingredients and the spirit she tries to infuse into every bite.

"You can't cook angry," she says. "You cook with love."

Check back tomorrow for a signature, seasonal dish from Chef Esparza: Enchiladas del Mar.

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