James Beard-nominated chef from South Philly Barbacoa focuses on feeding the needy

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Since it opened in 2018, South Philly Barbacoa quickly became a Philly foodie favorite.

It's award-winning chef, owner, Cristina Martinez, is now up for her second James Beard Award.

At the core of her recipe for recovery? Charity.

Martinez and her husband call all of the recognition "beautiful" and they are grateful.

Right now though, they say the most important recognition comes from the people they're cooking for.

That includes their loyal fans and hundreds of hungry people all around the city.

"We live and breathe in this restaurant and it's an expression of ourselves," says Martinez's husband, Ben Miller.

They are clearly not doing this for the accolades.

"Cristina thanks everyone for the support, but we just keep working, Miller says.

Right now, the couple is fiercely focused on feeding the needy.

"We don't care who we're cooking for," Miller says. "We still put the same amount of passion and love and technique into the food."

Famous for packing the streets of the Italian Market pre-pandemic, they've kept their beloved South Philly Barbacoa open for takeout on weekends only.

"We just adapted our crew and our service style," Miller says.

During the week, Cristina is cooking at her new spot, Casa Mexico, which she just opened in February.

"She closed for a couple of weeks and we sorted things out during the crisis," Miller explains, translating for his wife. "She decided she wanted to be in there cooking."

Add to all of that the fact that the couple is also making 200 meals a day to feed the hungry, with the help of guest chefs.

"There's no place we'd rather be than here in our kitchen cooking for people," Miller says.

An undocumented chef from Mexico, Cristina became the face of immigrant activism here in Philadelphia.

"I think our impulse to do work in our community comes from our heart," says Miller.

That heart extends into every meal, and every grain of Cristina's famous rice.

"She dedicates about two hours to cooking the rice," Miller says. "I admire my wife's hard work and perseverance and she never will quit."

The couple has been working with celebrity chef Jose Andres to get those meals to those in need, and they say that need is great.

They say if everyone does their part, even in a small way, it will have a big impact in getting us all through this crisis.


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