“I’m an al-pastor chef….that’s the sweetest thing. When I first came here I was eating sour things, and now I eat well,” said Raul Morales, chef of Taqueria Vista Hermosa. “I came to the U.S. to better myself. I came here to dream.”

Raul Morales, chef of Taqueria Vista Hermosa, sits in a table across from his bustling food stand in Los Angeles’s Mercado La Paloma recounting his first moments in this country. Morales came to the United States from Mexico when he was 19 years old, temporarily leaving his wife and children in Michoacan. The first thing he did was take up a job loading fruit in downtown Los Angeles. On his first day, the owner didn’t pay him. He explains, “I had no money for food or for bus fare. I had to go to the trashcan to eat and survive.”

Eventually, he got a better job, brought his family to the U.S., and started catering tacos at parties. He realized he always had a passion for cooking.

Growing up in a small town he remembers his grandmother in her humble outdoor kitchen made of clay and brick. She would cook everything by hand atop her wood-burning stove — smoke would fill the air, but he didn’t mind. Morales would watch in awe as she prepared moles, corundas (the Michoacan-style tamal), and one of his favorite dishes: rajas. “She made very humble dishes but made things with a lot of love, flavor, and passion,” he said.

Abuelitas are crucial to Mexican culture — often leading as the matriarchs that bind the family together, their wisdom extends from life advice to the best way to make flavorful frijoles. Their recipes are the stuff of legend, passed down orally from generation to generation. It is in the kitchen where the family unites to experience the culinary artistry and love that emanates from abuelita’s dishes.

This series explores how chefs cooking regional Mexican cuisine in Los Angeles are influenced by their abuelitas, testifying to the importance of ancestors in persevering Mexican heritage at home and abroad.

During our conversation we spoke about Morales’s abuelita and the impact she had in his life and his decision to pursue cooking as a career. He teaches us how to make his grandmother’s legendary rajas.

Samanta Helou’s work can be found at samantahelou.com