This Mexican Chef Started as a Dishwasher, Now He Dreams of Opening a Third Restaurant

Menu Stories

When Gonzalo González Guzmán arrived in the United States in 1998, he took a humble, but important job as a dishwasher. Taking great pride in his work, the restaurant promoted him to prep cook within a few years and to line cook six months after that. Since then, he’s continued to rise through the ranks, and he’s now the head chef and a partner at Nopalito, a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco. But it didn’t come without a lot of doubt and obstacles. “For the first couple of years working in the restaurant, I wasn’t still sure that I wanted to do this forever,” he said on an episode of Munchies’ Chef’s Night Out.

For the episode, he bounced around three restaurants with two of his co-workers, something that he wouldn’t have had time for early in his career when he worked two jobs and went to school. He’s still not much of a drinker, but he eagerly explored San Francisco’s Mexican flavors. While his co-workers tried to get him wasted, González only scratched the surface of his journey from dishwasher to head chef.

At 15, he set out from Puebla to the United States. “We got lost in the desert for five days,” González told the San Francisco Chronicler. “We ate rattlesnake, wild cactus. A month-and-a-half after we left Puebla, I finally arrived in San Francisco.” He followed his father to the US – though Gonzalo’s dad tried to discourage him because of how difficult it is to start over in the United States. González Guzmán didn’t speak English and couldn’t legally work because of his age, but he landed his first paying job as a dishwasher – making $4.70/hour – after lying about being 18. He prepared his first meal – a pot of beans – at age 6, but he really learned cooking on the job. Despite working double shifts at two restaurants, he managed to find some time to take classes at the City College of San Francisco as well.

He considers meeting Laurence Jossel a turning point in his career. Seeing how lovingly Jossel plated food gave González a new-found appreciation for the culinary world. And now in his early 30s, Gonzalo is serving as a mentor for the next generation of chefs. He teaches classes at San Francisco Cooking School, despite having no formal training as a cook.

Nopalito, which he opened with Jossel, opened on Broderick Street location six years ago, and now has two locations. Combined, the two eateries go through 28,000 tortillas, which is why someone is on hand to make them 16 hours a day. It’s a lot of man power to offer authentic flavors, but that’s what Gonzalo envisioned. And something he keeps in mind for the third restaurant he hopes to open. He said, “Il trying to represent my people by cooking dishes with a tradition and a history.”