Women in Hospitality: Diana Dávila 

women in hospitality

Be sure to view all of our previous entries in the Women in Hospitality series.

Chef Diana Dávila is a James Beard Foundation Award nominee and the chef and owner of Mi Tocaya Antojería, a Mexican restaurant in the Logan Square section of Chicago.

A native of the Chicago suburbs, Dávila grew up in kitchens and began working in her parents' taqueria at the age of 10. Since then, her career has taken her to different corners of North America from Oaxaca, Mexico to Washington D.C. and back to her hometown of Chicago where she opened Mi Tocaya Antojería in 2017. (“Mi Tocaya” means namesake, and “Antojeria” is a small-plate cafe.)

Determined to reshape the idea around what Mexican food is, Mi Tocaya serves up traditional favorites as well as lesser-known regional specialties. Dávila uses fresh ingredients and bold flavors, authentically representing the Central American cuisine with vegetable-forward dishes and a mole recipe that continues to evolve. Since opening, Mi Tocaya has received numerous accolades, and Dávila has become a leading authority in Mexican cuisine.

Beyond her work as a chef, Dávila is passionate about supporting artists and bringing awareness and support to the underserved community in Logan Square and beyond. During the pandemic, she launched the Todos Ponen Project, which supports undocumented workers. The Todos Ponen Project continues to make an impact today by supporting this initiative as well as others that are important to Dávila and her team.

We spoke with the chef about Mexican food, challenges in the hospitality industry, and what her Todos Ponen Project is up to today.

 

Through Mi Tocaya Antojería, you’re reshaping the idea of what Mexican food is. How are you accomplishing this? For you, what is Mexican food?

Chef Diana Davila

Mexican food to me is what inspires me and is the reason why I dedicate my cooking career to the cuisine. Mexican food is so vast that I feel like I can spend my whole life learning about it. I continue to uncover new ways to be creative.

Mexican food is learning so much about where the dishes come from. There are so many different cultures throughout the country that have contributed to creating Mexican cuisine. I’m someone who has always loved history, creating, and eating. Mexican food is a huge part of my identity and I’m a part of the culture and community; It’s part of my family and ultimately, it’s more personal.

What ingredients/flavors are you currently enjoying working with most?

I am loving nuts, spices, and herbs right now. I feel like they bring huge pops of flavor. Many cooks don’t know what to do with something that is so small and many times these ingredients get pushed aside for individual use.

 

Could you share one of your favorite recipes?

The Mole rojo recipe is my favorite. It shows how complex mole really is and highlights the art of sauce making, showing off the vastness of how Mexico is always growing. Its growing season is all year long and everything grows there – it really shows off the bounty of the harvest of Mexico. That’s what makes mole so special. It has nuts, and spices, and produce, and you can make it with any protein you want, you just have to balance the flavors properly.

 

What are some of the top challenges you’re seeing in the hospitality industry right now?

Operating a restaurant is the toughest right now. It’s hard to operate with challenges like taxes, expenses like higher wages, and health insurance. And really, the cost of everything just keeps rising, which makes it difficult to predict and budget.

 

Tell us more about your Todos Ponen Project and how it’s changed after starting in 2020.

chef diana davila
(Photo: Marisa Klug-Morataya)

The Todos Ponen Project (which in English translates to “Everyone Pitches In”) was originally developed in 2020 when I saw the lack of COVID-19 relief aid for undocumented restaurant workers – the backbone of the hospitality industry. My team and I partnered with Chicago’s top chefs and local non-profits to also provide complimentary meals for the community, while simultaneously employing undocumented restaurant workers. This important initiative ultimately kept the supply chain between restaurants and local farmers and vendors intact as well.

As the Todos Ponen Project continues, we are teaming up with Palenque LSNA and Chicago Cares to provide better food security and access to healthy, nutritious meals for underserved families in the Logan Square, Avondale, and Hermosa neighborhoods of Chicago. The pandemic has left many local families struggling to make ends meet, and my team and I – many who live and work in Logan Square, including myself – are providing accessible ways for them to consume healthy meals and ingredients through food pantries beginning with New Hope Bible Church. All involved are also seeing a rising and urgent need to help feed the thousands of migrants arriving in Chicago and know that as a community they must join in the efforts to make sure all of the families are fed. 

Any advice for other women in the hospitality industry?

Don’t be discouraged by anybody else’s vision and make sure that you follow your dreams and take time to smell the roses and value yourself.

 

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