Juan Carlos Menjivar hails from La Palma, Chalatenango, El Salvador. Next Tuesday, July 2, he will be teaching folks how to make a scrumptious Salvadoran meal; expect pupusas, Canoas de Plantano—and a heaping dose of culture. We thought we’d ask Juan a few questions about food, entrepreneurship, and what we can expect to learn at his class.
Nibble: How did you get started in the food business in El Salvador?
Juan: Well, I was pretty young. I watched my mom cooking, that’s how I learned. When I was 13 years old, I made the first meal for my family. I made yellow rice, vegetables, fried chicken and fried beans. This is a classic Salvadoran meal. My mom said “Wow, that’s great. You need to keep cooking!” I realized I liked cooking. And if you love what you do, you do it well.
Nibble: When did you start your restaurant?
Juan: When I was 18 years old, I helped my sister at a small kitchen/restaurant. I worked there about nine months. When my sister decided she wanted to sell the place, I told her, “I can buy it. How much do you want?” It cost 800 colones, about $100. I had the money because I had been working at a hotel and saving, so I bought it. After running that place for a while, I started running another restaurant called “El Concaste.” Then six months later, I opened my own restaurant, a big one, called “El Mirador.” It was on the third floor and had a great view of La Palma and surrounding towns. I was 19.
Nibble: What are you doing here, in the United States?
Juan: I am continuing to work in restaurants. Right now I am a waiter. I like customer service. Everything I do is involved with hotels and restaurants.
Nibble: Owning your own business at age 19 is unusual. Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
Juan: I don’t know. It’s like this: When I think I can do something, I work hard to do it. When people think you can’t do something, I say, “Yes I can.” That’s what I am. I work hard. For instance, when I worked at the Ritz Carlton in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I was the cleaning manager. When I was working there, in 2009, it was voted best hotel in Fort Lauderdale. A big part of that is because the hotel was so clean.
Nibble: What is your Salvadoran food and can you find it here?
Juan: I think it is pupusas. And yes, you can find it here but it is not the same because you can’t get the same fresh ingredients. In El Salvador we make pupusas with fresh loroco flowers, here you can only buy them frozen. I miss the pupusas of El Salvador.
Nibble: What is special about Salvadoran food?
Juan: The food is really good, we use the freshest ingredients and special spices, like achiote. But it’s not just the food, it’s the people. The Salvadoran people, they love to work, to cook, to serve people. When a tourist goes there, the people are going to try to impress you.
Nibble: You talk about going back to El Salvador. What would you like to do there?
Juan: I would like to open a tourist agency. We can help tourists find hotels, good food, organize trips. We don’t have that yet in El Salvador and I would like to start that. I don’t know when, maybe in two years.
Nibble: What are your plans while you’re here in Somerville?
Juan: I would like to open a restaurant maybe. I would also like to open a small store, where you can find artisanías [crafts] from El Salvador. Because we have to help our people in El Salvador. Making artisanías is what a lot of people do in El Salvador; I would like to support them—and promote Salvadoran culture. In Boston I don’t think a store like this exists.
Nibble: Can you tell me about the artisanías that your town, La Palma, is famous for?
Juan: We make items out of pine. We cut the pieces, put them together, sand them, and then paint them. My town is know for it’s wood artisanías; other towns have different types of crafts.
Nibble: What can people expect if they take your cooking class?
Juan: Well, people will learn to cook some great food. It will be really authentic, like the food in El Salvador. Maybe people are a little scared about Salvadoran food because they don’t know it—pupusas, enchiladas and pasteles. But in this class, I think people will get to know these things and the real flavors of El Salvador. And they are not going to leave hungry! But more than the food, people will learn a lot about a small country and it’s people. People will learn that Salvadorans open their doors and say, “Come in!” In El Salvador we say “Si yo como, tu comes tambien” [if I’m eating, you’re eating too]. People taking the class are going to feel this. They will also see artisanías from La Palma.
Nibble: So there will be heaps of food, but plenty of culture, too?
Juan: Exactly. I’m so happy to have an opportunity to share my culture.
Here is information about Juan’s upcoming cooking class
A native of La Palma, Chalatenango, El Salvador, Juan Carlos Menjivar will teach us to make a complete Salvadoran meal. Dishes include pasteles (empanada-like items, tinted red with achiote powder and stuffed with either meat or vegetables; see photo), pupusas, and curtido (a lightly fermented cabbage slaw). We will also make agua de cebada (a lightly spiced barley drink) and agua de marañan (made with cashew fruit) to accompany our meal. And for dessert, we’ll create Canoas de Plantano—fried plantains with poleada (a custard) and cinnamon—these delicious concoctions look just like canoes! Once our feast is ready, we will sit down to eat together and learn more about Salvadoran culinary and cultural traditions. Juan Carlos has a heaping portion of experience, having owned and run two restaurants in El Salvador: El Mirador and El Conacaste.