Story | Sally J. Clasen
Photography | Mark Lipczynski
Gennaro Garcia is a master at spinning plates. Many know Garcia, who grew up in San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico, as a muralist who co-founded Calle 16: A Mural Project, a diversity art initiative in Phoenix with chef Silvana Salcido Esparza. But he’s also an oil and acrylic painter, a wood carver, photographer, sculptor and, more recently, a restaurateur. Garcia, along with chefs Aaron Chamberlin and Suny Santana, will soon open Taco Chelo on Roosevelt Row, a venture that combines Garcia’s passion for food and art.
It isn’t Garcia’s first foray into the restaurant business. Growing up, he helped wait tables in a family-owned restaurant and, over the years, has launched several restaurants in Mexico. When Garcia first moved to the U.S. in his 20s, he managed an eatery in Yuma while trying to jumpstart his art career painting murals in restaurants.
“I love food,” admits Garcia, whose affection for gastronomy is on display in a collection of hand-painted plates, bowls and serving dishes called Hecho a Mano (handmade) that features a black outline of Garcia’s open palms—a creative journey that comes full circle when food is placed upon the graphic.
Memories of his parents were partly responsible for inspiring him to make a painted pottery collection that symbolizes an offering of love and nourishment.
“I remember my father bringing home vegetables he picked with his hands in the fields, and then my mother making meals out of the food with her own hands,” he says. “And my mother would say to me, ‘I have you eating out of my hands’ as a sign of affection.”
The idea of creating contemporary pottery with a metaphoric food message also took shape when Garcia spent one month in Puebla, Mexico, learning to make authentic Talavera pottery. While it was cost-prohibitive for him to develop that style of ceramics for useable dinnerware, the experience propelled Garcia to launch his own painted collection, using an American pottery supplier and then adding his signature handprint by hand to his iconic series.
The Hecho a Mano line, which was nominated for a Martha Stewart American Made award in 2016, quickly became popular among chefs and art collectors across the country and in Mexico. The dinnerware has been featured in several exhibits and galleries, including Charles Galvin Gallery in Scottsdale, and is for sale locally at Practical Art, For the People, and Phoenix Public Market Café. In addition, the Hecho a Mano imagery appears on bread and cutting boards, which are used by familiar faces like chef Chris Bianco, an early fan of Garcia’s work.
“I believe those who work in the culinary field are artists just like myself,” he says. “The beauty of Hecho a Mano is that it connects me to restaurants. It allows me to be part of the food world again and work with people I admire. It gives me the freedom to collaborate with chefs.”
Garcia’s creative handprint will be clearly visible at Taco Chelo, where he’s heavily involved in design decisions including menu development, and choosing ceramic floor tiles and light fixtures. He even designed a special trompo (vertical rotisserie) with charcoal for cooking tacos al pastor at the new establishment.
And, of course, Taco Chelo customers will eat from custom Hecho a Mano dishes made especially for the restaurant, an essential ingredient of the creative process that will unfold in the art-focused food space that Garcia views as an evolving art installation. “I’m a creative artist. It doesn’t matter the technique, the color or the style,” he says of his latest artistic pursuit. “I enjoy the learning process.”