Nevertheless, she became head chef
Insights from Tania Merlos-Ruiz, Tomate Fresh Kitchen (Evanston)
Tania Merlos-Ruiz has been cooking for as long as she can remember. Growing up, her family moved around Guatemala for her father’s job, and her mother taught her the different styles of cooking that she learned along the way. Despite all of her experience and training, Tania had a hard time moving up the ladder at the various kitchens she worked in: “I struggled when I got out of culinary school because it’s hard for a female in the industry to get up in front. They always want you to be a salad chef or a pastry chef… I was getting very tired of that. I would come home frustrated because there were things I knew I could do, but they wouldn’t let me do it.”
Instead of allowing the restaurant industry’s sexism to hold her back, Tania took matters into her own hands. She started selling sorbet and empanadas from a stand at farmers markets, and she ran out of food too fast to get to all of her customers almost every time. One day, Tania passed a storefront with a “for rent” sign and knew it was time: “As soon as I walked in it was like, this is it. It just felt like this is where it was meant to happen.”
And so Tomate Fresh Kitchen was born. Tania packs the menu full of vegetarian options and local ingredients from farmers markets. Her commitment to fresh food comes from her experience learning to feed her own mother while she was suffering from stomach cancer and needed a healthy vegetarian diet.
Unsurprisingly, Tania’s popularity at the farmer’s markets followed her to her new restaurant: “The first day we opened, we were expecting maybe one, two people. We had a line out the door. We ran out of food!”
Even though it seems meant to be in hindsight, Tania’s decision to independently open a restaurant took serious guts: “It’s scary to open your own business. I remember like two weeks before I opened up I was in the bathroom and I started crying, and I’m thinking ‘Oh my god, what did I get myself into.’”
Tania has always faced challenges head on. She has even had to let employees go because they wouldn’t take orders from a woman. “It takes a lot of bravery to own your own business. To be the head, to be the one with the sight of what it is that you want to do and how you want to get it accomplished.”
Make sure to stop by and try the roasted sweet potato salad and orange-hibiscus agua fresca. Say hello, she’ll be the one in the chef’s jacket in control of the kitchen.