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Tumerico's Chef Wendy Garcia named a semi-finalist for James Beard Award

Tumerico's Chef Wendy Garcia named a semi-finalist for James Beard Award

Tucson restaurant owner recognized among best in Southwest

  • Tumerico's owner-chef Wendy Garcia is a semifinalist for the 'Best Chef in the Southwest' James Beard awards . Her restaurants are known for her traditional Mexican meals with their vegan or vegetarian twists.
    Tumerico FacebookTumerico's owner-chef Wendy Garcia is a semifinalist for the 'Best Chef in the Southwest' James Beard awards . Her restaurants are known for her traditional Mexican meals with their vegan or vegetarian twists.

Wendy Garcia, the owner and chef of local vegetarian Mexican restaurant Tumerico, has been nominated for a James Beard Award.

Chihuahua-native Wendy Garcia is a semi-finalist in the "Best Chef in the Southwest" category.

"I grew up with food, always in the kitchen cooking with my dad. But to me it was work," Garcia said. "I was always being told to go get this, go get that, so as a little girl, I never thought I'd do this for a living."

She says the inspiration behind her food was her childhood in Mexico, where the culture revolved around feeding and serving each other. Her passion stems from creating nurturing meals in a homelike environment. She said the customers she has been feeding for years feel more like family.

"To me, it is all about serving people," Garcia said. "At home, it was my mom's way of saying 'I love you,' you know."

Garcia moved to the Tucson at age 16 and she began working at restaurants as a dishwasher. Eventually, she worked her way up to prepping and working on the salad bar. She would also make tamales — butternut squash tamales as well — and sell them in farmer's markets around the city. However, she became disillusioned with working in the traditional restaurants she worked in.

"For me, it was just so boring," Garcia said. "You would go in and do the same thing over and over every day because restaurants don't really change their menus much. I was burnt out."

Garcia stepped away from the restaurant scene but necessity led to ingenuity, and the concept of Tumerico was born, with the original location opening on 2014.

"It took a long time for Tumerico," Garcia said. "It was just three of us. We would open evenings only with four things on the menu. Somehow things work out."

Although the beginning was small, Garcia had space to do something she couldn't do in her previous jobs: explore flavor in simplicity.

"I began to play with food," Garcia said.

She would go in the morning, open the refrigerator and create dishes with what was there, much like her family did when she was a child in Chihuahua.

"We do not have a recipe book," Garcia said. "I don't write anything down. I just experimented with recipes we would make back in my parents' kitchen and use quality local ingredients."

She said she's felt attached to her customers over the years. Garcia's customer base grew through word of mouth, she said.

"We don't really advertise," Garcia said. "We started gaining customers because people brought their friends, and those friends told other people and spread the word."

Garcia said she would like to open a Tumerico location in Phoenix some day but for now, she is content with the work she has in Tucson and the experience she can provide for her customers.

From small beginnings selling butternut squash tamales in the farmer's markets to being nominated for the James Beard award, Garcia said in retrospect, although she didn't think she'd made a career as a chef and restaurateur, the award is something every chef dreams of.

"I am so happy," Garcia said. "And it is also possible because of this city because Tucson is a great place with so many good ingredients locally. We have all the nopalitos and everything."

Garcia owns two Tumerico locations — 402 E. 4th St. and 2526 E. 6th St. - as well as La Chaiteria at 1002 W. Congress St.

"The thing I always tell people is that if you're going to do something every day, make sure it is something you love because you're going to need the motivation and passion," Garcia said.

The finalists for the award will be announced at the end of March, with the winners recognized in June. The James Beard Awards are the country's most prestigious contest for chefs and restaurateurs, and are often described as the Academy Awards of food.

Garcia is the only Tucsonan nominated this year. Previous James Beard recognition has gone to Southern Arizonans including Janos Wilder, Daniel Contreras of El Guero Canelo, and Don Guerra of Barrio Bread.

Bianca Morales is’s Cultural Expression and Community Values reporter, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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