Covid-19 stranded a North Carolina chef in Mexico. The unexpected detour changed his plans forever.

Chef Jorge Ruiz hadn’t had a proper vacation in years. The pandemic provided an accidental opportunity to reconnect with Mexican cuisine, his heritage—leading to new directions he never anticipated.

The Counter first met Jorge Ruiz when reporting a story about the Covid-related “labor shortage” reportedly ravaging the country. (Hint: It’s more of a “wage shortage.”) In speaking to the Durham, North Carolina chef about the challenges facing the restaurant industry, it became clear he had a much bigger story to tell. Ruiz spent years planning for an internship at Mexico City’s Pujol, considered one of the best restaurants in the world. But just one month into the internship, the restaurant closed because of the pandemic. From that unexpected turn of events, a life-changing adventure followed, one that led Ruiz to coastal Oaxaca, then to a goat farm back in the States, and finally back to the restaurant industry. He’s now focused on taking what he learned about cooking and his culture in Mexico and using it to inform his new goals: working with nixtamalized corn, and preparing to one day open his own Mexican seafood restaurant—a path he might never have considered without his unexpected journey.

At the beginning of February 2020, I was a sous chef at Mothers & Sons in Durham, North Carolina. I was doing a lot of prep, making handmade pastas, doing fish and meat butchery, some charcuterie, some ordering, just chef stuff and some managerial work. But I was on my way out because I had this plan—eight years in the making—to work at Pujol in Mexico City. I paid off some of my [Culinary Institute of America] debt and saved up enough to do a six-month unpaid internship at Pujol. I got all of these things ready, and one month into the internship it all comes crashing down. I started working at Pujol on February 25 and the restaurant closed March 17 because of Covid.

I decided to fly to Oaxaca. When I moved to Mexico City to work at Pujol, I had some family around that helped me settle in, but I had no connections in Oaxaca. It was a complete getaway from the world I knew. I got an affordable Airbnb and hunkered down. Even if I wanted to go back to the States at that point, I couldn’t. Two days after I got there, they shut down the airports. So, there was no going back. Even though I was stuck there, I didn’t feel stuck. It wasn’t a bad thing for me, honestly. I was in a remote beach town. There wasn’t a dense population. I could afford the cost of living. Plus, the savings I had wouldn’t have lasted me in the States. I made the most of it. I ate really amazing organic food. The air and the water just felt different, really fresh and clean. There were no big cities nearby. There was plenty of greenery. I was staying in a healthy environment.

I decided to fly to Oaxaca. When I moved to Mexico City to work at Pujol, I had some family around that helped me settle in, but I had no connections in Oaxaca. It was a complete getaway from the world I knew.

After a couple of months, my family started to wonder what the hell I was going to do and if I was going to stay in Oaxaca forever. I was just hanging out, eating coconuts and mangos. The property I was staying on had four different varieties of mangoes and every day, tons of them would fall from the tree. Next door to me, a woman would make handmade tortillas every day over a wood fire. It was 5 cents a tortilla. I was eating a lot of beans and rice and I was cooking too. It was a really simple and nice way to live and I just let the days go by. Working in the restaurant industry, I never really had time off. The last time I can remember taking more than a couple of days was in 2017. I was just living and even though there was so much going on in the world, I was trying to just enjoy it.

The last time I can remember taking more than a couple of days was in 2017. I was just living and even though there was so much going on in the world, I was trying to just enjoy it.

I was in Oaxaca until the end of June. I returned to Pujol July 1 when they reopened, and worked there until mid-September. After the internship was over, I decided to stay in Mexico. I was seeing how the [Covid-19] cases were increasing in the States and I didn’t want to go back to that. I rented a car and just traveled around Mexico for a few months. I considered a job at ARCA in Tulum, but they asked me to work six days a week and I couldn’t do that. Your mental health suffers so much when you work those kinds of hours. In mid-January, I decided to go back to the States because my father got sick.

Jorge Ruiz selfie outdoors. July 2021.

After Jorge’s internship, he rented a car and traveled around Mexico for a few months.

Courtesy of Jorge Ruiz

Back in the States, I started looking for a job. There was nothing available in restaurants at the time, or they weren’t paying well, or they couldn’t offer you the hours you needed to make a living. I decided to leave the industry for a little bit to do one of those WWOOF-ing things. [Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms is a cultural and educational program that links visitors with organic farmers. Visitors spend about half of each day working on the host farm learning about farming and sustainability and in turn, they receive free room and board during their visit.] I always thought about doing this in another country, but when I couldn’t really find work here, I thought it would be interesting to try. As a chef, I care about where my food comes from—especially the things we don’t handle directly. It was a whole other aspect of the food world I wanted to experience. I looked at different farm jobs and I came across a post for a cheesemaker at Prodigal Farm in Rougemont, North Carolina. I’d never made cheese before, but I was familiar with the process of pasteurizing. Sanitation is very important in the food service industry, so I thought I knew enough about aspects of the process to give it a try.

One of the hardest parts of the restaurant industry for me was always being stuck inside under artificial lights. You usually can’t even really go outside for your break to get some air.

I started working on the farm February 15, 2021. One of the hardest parts of the restaurant industry for me was always being stuck inside under artificial lights. You usually can’t even really go outside for your break to get some air. Maybe you can take 15 minutes to get some sun in the parking lot. So, I really enjoyed being out on this beautiful farm. It was a completely different experience in the food industry that I really enjoyed. I’d go to the farm at 6 in the morning and I’d be done by 2 p.m. Each day I’d empty the milk tanks, heat up the milk, record the temperatures, add the cultures, let the PH drop. Getting to the cheesemaking process is time-consuming because you’re really just waiting for temperatures to rise and drop in the milk before you can do anything. In between all of that, I was flipping cheeses, washing the rinds, making sure the good bacteria was growing. It was all a very slow process and very different from what I was used to.

Jorge Ruiz eats meal outdoors in front of building. July 2021.

Courtesy of Jorge Ruiz

As a chef, Jorge cares about where his food comes from—especially the things he doesn’t handle directly.

I enjoyed the balance the schedule allowed me to have, but making cheese wasn’t as gratifying as I thought it would be. It was nice, but after a month it felt repetitive. It was delayed gratification because in cooking, you have the finished product by the end of the day or even sooner. It’s not like that with cheesemaking. You can’t taste the final product of your work for months. I started to wonder: How will I know if I’m making mistakes? Am I doing this right? I decided to leave in April when restaurants really started to open back up. I wanted to do something that interested me more, which is why I started working at a restaurant called Ex-Voto in the Durham food hall. It focuses on nixtamalized corn to make fresh tortillas and tamales. I’ve always been interested in nixtamalization; it’s the whole reason I went to Mexico. This restaurant is also ahead of the curve because it adds tips on all the orders, which means the cooks also get tipped out. This isn’t really a thing anywhere else and I can work 28 hours a week and make a decent living, more than I would make full-time at another restaurant. 

The whole time I’ve been here, we’ve focused on burritos and crunchwraps and stuff like that, which is not the kind of cooking I thought I would be doing. It has felt soul-sucking sometimes, to be honest. But I’m treating it as a stepping stone because in August we’re going back to focusing on nixtamalized corn. 

I know I don’t want to work for someone else my entire life. Eventually, I want to open my own restaurant. Right now I’m learning and practicing and saving up money for a downpayment to open a place.

I know I don’t want to work for someone else my entire life. Eventually, I want to open my own restaurant. Right now I’m learning and practicing and saving up money for a downpayment to open a place. I want to make simple, well-made Mexican food, like tacos and ceviche. I want to use good ingredients from Mexico that people don’t typically use here. When I was in Mexico, it really opened up my eyes to what Mexican food actually is and all of the things that are uncommon here that are common in Mexico. I’ve started growing hoja santa because it’s expensive in supermarkets here, and I got a bunch of heirloom variety seeds from Mexico that I started growing this year—mostly different chiles you can’t find here. I guess my story is that I went to Mexico to connect with my culture, Covid complicated a bunch of stuff, but I was able to bring some of my culture home and now I want to build something of my own.

The restaurant industry wasn’t on my mind all the time. I’m very grateful for that part of the pandemic.

Covid spinned my life into all of these weird directions, but I never felt like I was totally derailed. Professionally, it pushed me into a different route and personally, I thought about my role in the industry. I started to think: What if restaurants don’t come back? Is this industry even worth coming back to? Having all of that free time in Oaxaca, I re-evaluated things and reprioritized what’s really important in life. Covid helped me do that. I needed that time, and I needed to relax and breathe. I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was 15 years old, and it’s been non-stop working for 13 years until the pandemic happened. In Mexico, I was in my body and actually experiencing the world around me and taking things one day at a time. The restaurant industry wasn’t on my mind all the time. I’m very grateful for that part of the pandemic. 

Jorge Ruiz is a chef in Durham, North Carolina.

Tina Vasquez is a senior staff writer at The Counter focusing on immigration, gender, and food systems. She was previously a senior reporter at Prism, a women of color-led non-profit news outlet. A 2020 Type Investigations Ida B. Wells Fellow, she has written for The Nation, NPR, Playboy, and the Boston Globe. She is based in North Carolina.