How Oaxacan Chef Ivan Vasquez Built a Restaurant Empire with Family Recipes
Never doubt the power of home cooking.
When Chef Ivan Vasquez first moved from Oaxaca to LA in 1995, he was (not surprisingly) missing his mom’s cooking. Oaxacan dishes like pozole, pasta de frijol negro (an authentic black bean paste) and arroz con leche were widely missing from the city… and what he could find just wasn’t hitting the mark.
“My mom used to cook every day, three times. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Vasquez says. “The first thing I missed when I came to the United States in the '90s were the dishes my mom made when I was a little kid. I was missing her pozole, and the spiciness of the food.”
Vszquez is the chef and owner behind Madre, a Oaxacan restaurant with the largest selection of mezcal in the United States at more than 400 different bottles. Since he opened his first location in Palms in 2015, the concept quickly expanded into two others: a location in Torrance in 2017 and West Hollywood just last year, with a special focus on takeaway and outdoor dining. At each, mole and mezcal make up most of the menu, as do dishes like arroz con leche.
“Weekends were the times where we used to enjoy a homemade arroz con leche and watch movies on a black and white TV,” he remembers. Made with sweetened milk, rice, and a dusting of cinnamon, the Mexican take on rice pudding is usually offered as dessert when Madre does a tasting menu.
Vasquez has been working in LA’s restaurant scene for more than 25 years. He first worked for Baja Fresh, a fast casual chain, as a manager, and stayed for nearly 15 years, managing almost as many locations. “Back in the day, people always asked me, ‘Why don’t you open your own restaurant?’ and ‘You have all this experience in fast casual and Tex-Mex,’” he says. “And I told them ‘I don’t want to do the same as Baja Fresh, that’s not really what I want.’”
Despite being nervous about the financial investment and responsibility, Vasquez did find his own opportunity in 2012, when he took over at El Nopal, a small restaurant that had been around since the '70s in Palms. That same location would become Madre just three years later.
“If I tell you how many times I cried before being successful, you’re not going to believe it,” Vasquez says. “I hit the wall financially one day and said ‘Wow, this is nothing like I would imagine… but I believe in this concept.”
The turning point for Vasquez’s business, he says, was the addition of mezcal.
His grandfather had owned a mezcaleria, a small bar with two soups, a couple of appetizers, and mezcal. It was also the drink his family would pour for celebrations, and widely popular throughout Oaxaca. But before 2015, it was hard to find in LA — especially if you were looking for unique, regional offerings.
"I hit the wall financially one day and said ‘Wow, this is nothing like I would imagine… but I believe in this concept.”
“I came out with a full menu of mezcal, everything that was available at the time, and it worked,” he says. He taught himself the differences in production, in regional varieties, and started taking bi-monthly trips to Oaxaca to research craft bottles to bring back to Madre.
“It was so successful that the little place in Palms with nine tables and five bar stools… now we have a waiting time of two hours on weekends.”
Be it offering a new regional mezcal, his take on his mom’s arroz con leche, or even just sipping hot cafe con leche in the mornings, like he would at his family’s breakfast table, Vasquez says this concept is a dream come true, because it helps to keep his traditions and ties to Oaxaca alive.
“This represents my family, my community,” he says. “This is what my family’s about and my memories.”