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How family anchors Phoenix chef Carlos Diaz of Otro Cafe during COVID

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert
Arizona Republic

Updated 9:01 AM EDT Aug 24, 2020

Mondays are for family in the life of Phoenix chef Carlos Diaz.

Diaz is considered the right-hand man for chef and restaurateur Doug Robson, and he’s spent the last 10 years in the bustling kitchens of Robson’s two restaurants, Gallo Blanco and Otro Cafe. After all this time, his heart still swells with every compliment from a satisfied diner.

At the end of the day, Diaz whittles down his job description to this: To feed people and to feed people well.

But Mondays, his day off, there’s only one table Diaz tries to satisfy — the one his wife and six children are seated at in their home in Tolleson.

His family feels like an anchor at a time when he and his colleagues are staring down what’s possibly the most significant public health crisis of their lifetime.

In Mexico, his grandmother and aunt sparked his interest in cooking. Now in Arizona, his wife and children bring mental support as he works during the pandemic.

“If I’m not doing well at work, that’s going to be reflected in my family because I’m going to be stressed and thinking about the restaurant,” Diaz said. “When I play with my kids, when I go biking with my son, when I take them to the lake — that time that I spend with them, it’s like recharging my battery to keep going.”

While Gallo Blanco is closed indefinitely, Otro Cafe is open for takeout, after closing and opening multiple times during the pandemic. The menu has been pared down for what works best to-go. Despite the uncertainties of what the next day may bring, he and the kitchen staff quietly continue to do what they did before COVID-19 — provide meals made from scratch, using ingredients from local farms.

“It is hard because obviously we want to keep working,” Diaz said. “It’s really hard to close down and try to manage all the inventory and don’t waste food and try to keep people employed.”

How family drew Diaz to the food industry

Diaz had been working as a chef at the historic Clarendon Hotel when Robson offered him a job at his upcoming venture, Gallo Blanco, a contemporary Mexican restaurant that opened inside the hotel in 2009.

Their upbringings in central Mexico — Robson in Mexico City and Diaz in León — made it easy for Diaz to understand Robson’s culinary influences and work together, he said.

In León, Diaz learned to cook by helping his grandmother, Ana María. He used to sneak bites from her mise en place and observe her cook mole, one of his favorite dishes. When Ana María became ill and started to lose her vision in one eye, Diaz started taking the lead in the kitchen after school.

That’s why he’s the favorite grandson, Diaz joked. He still talks to Ana María a few times every week on the phone, checking in on how she’s doing during the pandemic. More than 52,000 people in Mexico have died from COVID-19, so her health is on his mind, he said.

His aunt, whom he calls his Tia Nana, also gave him an early glimpse of the work it takes to run a restaurant. Diaz used to hang out often at his aunt’s cafe near his grandmother’s house, where every night Diaz’s uncle would cook the nixtamal and in the mornings Tia Nana stuffed quesadillas with different fillings, such as picadillo, desebrada, huevo and chile verde.

Their consistency fascinated him and motivated him to work similarly when he began working in restaurants himself, Diaz said.

“All the hard work and dedication she put into cooking that every day,” Diaz said. “It’s really hard to work, service and then prep for next day. It’s like a machine, always working.”

‘To be in the restaurant industry is risky’

On a typical day, executive chef Diaz arrives at Otro Cafe and checks that the cooks have everything they need to prep for dinner service. He tastes the food in the kitchen to make sure the recipes are executed correctly, runs expo — the intermediary role between the kitchen and customers, and in pre-pandemic times, would “touch tables” to check on customers. With dine-in closed, he helps package meals for curbside pickup.

Meanwhile, the lights remain off at Gallo Blanco near downtown Phoenix. The restaurant reopened after Gov. Doug Ducey reopened restaurant dining rooms in May, but closed again in July when COVID-19 cases spiked in Arizona.

“We decided to close Gallo longer because downtown is a ghost town,” Diaz said. “Nobody is there to support all the local restaurants. People working in the office are at home now. There are no concerts. It’s really sad how downtown is right now.”

With six children, Diaz said he has to keep working to pay his bills and provide for them. It would be stressful if he caught the coronavirus and had to quarantine away from his wife and children.

But he also sees his work as an essential link in the food chain, from farm to diner.

“To be in the restaurant industry is risky,” Diaz said. “You interact with people. Even if we do to-go and takeout only, you interact with a lot of people. Some people get scared. I don’t get scared, but I take a lot of precautions with the team.”

He can’t wait to return to some of the most rewarding aspects of his work in and out of the restaurant — coming up with weekly specials, teaming up with other chefs and bartenders for dinner events, and going into schools to teach children about food. 

Diaz also sees this pause as a chance, perhaps, for the restaurant industry to remake itself.

“I want all my cooks and, not just cooks, all employees in restaurants to have a better quality of life,” Diaz said. “Obviously, working in the restaurant, it is really demanding to work a lot. I hope people can find balance between working and finding time with their families. I hope in general, the restaurant industry can become a little more about that.”

Reach the reporter at Priscilla.Totiya@azcentral.com. Follow @priscillatotiya on Twitter and Instagram.

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