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Maria Mazon, chef and Top Chef contestant
Issue 30: On being on Top Chef, Tucson's increasing popularity, and elevating Mexican cuisine.
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Maria Mazon is the chef-owner of BOCA Tacos y Tequila in Tucson Arizona, an outpost for modern Mexican food on Tucson’s up-and-coming Fourth Avenue. She was also a cheftestant on Top Chef season 18 and is also a 2020 James Beard Award finalist. I talked to her about her time on Top Chef, Tucson's increasing popularity, and elevating Mexican cuisine.
Brianna Plaza: How did you get into cooking?
Maria Mazon: I hated school and I have ADHD. My dad made me go to the U of A and I hated it, so I went to Pima. I did two years and I'm like, "Dude, I can't do this shit. Here's your Pima degree. I hope this is good." My brother, who is also my business partner now, graduated with so many degrees and now we're opening a tortilla factory together. He was helping me with the masa and I'm like, "How's that diploma working for you, bud?"
I started with my old business partner and at an old Mexican restaurant here in town and discovered that I was okay at cooking. One thing led to another and that's what happened. My concept, BOCA, came about because I was tired of going to the south side to get the food that I wanted. That's how I started, because I didn't want to drive that far. I thought U of A students were my clientele and I really quickly realized they were. I hated dealing with drunk students after football games.
And 12 years later I'm still kicking. Nonetheless, I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Brianna Plaza: Would you ever open another BOCA or another restaurant?
Maria Mazon: Concept, yes. BOCA, no. My dream would be to franchise BOCA at airports or something like that. My dream will be airports. Why? I don't know. Or stadiums. But to me, being at Dodgers stadium would be my dream.
So to me that will be my goal. I’ll definitely open another concept. I love Asian food and I think Mexican cuisines and Asian food work well together. But I am also not going to tempt fate, so I’m going to stick with what I know. But if I open another project, it will not just be tacos. At the beginning of my first five, six years, I was like, "Yeah, I'm going to do tacos, tacos, tacos." By the seventh I'm like, "Ugh. I want to create." And thank God my customers, my clientele, my friends, people, now they know that on Wednesdays, they can have the weekend special.
When I was on Top Chef, I remember talking to the producers being like, "Am I too Mexican for this show?" I was doubting myself because of the nuance. And I was like, I get it, but if a lady from Oaxaca sees me putting fucking fish sauce on a mole, she's going to grab a spoon and hit me with it. There are some things that you cannot break because they're not damaged.
But the show did show me that there's room for people like me. I didn't go to culinary school. I still respect the art of cooking, but I do it unapologetically in my own way. And I love that if people call me a taquera, the taco maker, I don't care. I don't need the title. I just want to cook and showcase that Mexican cuisine is beautiful.
Brianna Plaza: Did you find out you were going to be on Top Chef before the pandemic started?
Maria Mazon: Everyone gets cast months in advance and I got invited to be on the show. I've never really worked for other restaurants before or under a chef. So I don't have the stripes that the other chefs had. I was the only mom on the show, was the only gay person on the show, which was unreal.
It was one of the best experiences I had in my life and I'd do it again with my eyes closed. I met the coolest humans in the world. I went for the experience, I'm not going to lie. When people say, "Oh yeah, you wanted the title." I'm a human, of course, and I'm a chef. I'm competitive as fuck, but because I didn't go to culinary school, I went because learning from the other chefs was my culinary school. I went through the Top Chef culinary school.
Brianna Plaza: Growing up, I never really thought Tucson was cool or that interesting. But now, my brother and I, or friends and I, are regularly like, “Is Tucson cool now?” And in 2015, the UNESCO designation put Tucson on the map. What are your thoughts on Tucson and its growth in popularity?
Maria Mazon: I think it was always cool, but if you grew up here, it wasn’t. Thanks to Top Chef, I meet a lot of new people and they always ask, "Can you describe Tucson?" There’s been a boom thanks to UNESCO. But honestly, I give it up to us, the chefs. There are a lot of us that are doing things right. No gimmicks, no loudness, no nothing.
I am opening up a tortilleria and I could have used mass produced manseca because it’s cheaper, but it’s not about that. To me, it’s about elevating something simple. I am bringing in non GMO corn and the fact of the matter is, I’m using prime ingredients from Mexico and you can taste it. I might be criticized because they’re going to be pricier but I’m like, “You’re not putting shit in your body.” And it shows here at the restaurant. I really, really try to make an effort.
I’ve been in business for 12 years and the Maria of 12 years ago used to be mad all the time because people thought I was Taco Bell. People would ask, “Do you have regular tacos? Do you have normal salsa?” And every time I went home and talked to my wife, I felt discouraged. I decided that if I believe in what I am selling, people will get it. I want people to know Mexican cuisine is elegant.
I am not going to apologize for bringing good corn and supporting agricultural businesses from Oaxaca. 2020 and 2021 were a real constant kick in the you know where. But ironically, 2020 was my year as a professional. I finally got a James Beard nomination and if I don’t get nominated again, it’s going to make me try harder for next year.
Brianna Plaza: How do you see your business and your brand as a person as part of Tucson’s growth?
Maria Mazon: To me, the more eyes in my hometown, the better. It's going to revive the hometown, it's going to make people aware of what we're doing. It's going to make people want to come to Tucson. To me, it’s more butts on those seats.
If I was up to me and I had the money without getting myself in zillion dollars of debt, open more businesses, provide more stuff and just ... I love cooking, man. I love cooking. That's when I'm the happiest, more relaxed. Right now, all I can think of is when I'm done here, I get to cook at home. I love cooking at home with a glass of wine, talking to my wife, talking to our son and our two crazy dogs, to me that's life. That's the American dream, as cheesy as that sound.
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