Cristina Martinez recently won the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic Region. Photo: Samantha Madera/AL DÍA News.
Cristina Martinez recently won the James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic Region. Photo: Samantha Madera/AL DÍA News.

Cristina Martinez, of South Philly Barbacoa, discusses future plans after winning The James Beard Award

Martinez is giving her attention to focus on human rights, more specifically, undocumented workers.


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Cristina Martinez’s journey from living in Capulhuac, Central Mexico, to becoming a James Beard award-winning chef has been a long and fulfilling one.

Martinez grew up seeing her parents cook in the kitchen to make the hearty, deep-flavored, barbacoa, a dish that consists of meat being smoked in an underground pit for hours until it falls off the bone.

She began to learn how to use the cooking methods her parents used at a young age.

“I knew I wanted to become a chef when I was six years old,” Martinez said in an interview with AL DÍA News. “I started working at six and I always loved it. I grew into understanding professionalism along the way.”

Years later, Martinez became an established and well-known chef in Philadelphia and around the country from her work in South Philly Barbacoa, using those same techniques that she learned in Mexico.

After winning The James Beard Award on June 13, 2022, an annual ceremony that recognizes chefs, authors, and journalists for their work in the culinary arts, Martinez noted that she is grateful that her talent is showcased on a larger scale.

She won for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic category. This was her second nomination.

“I am proud to represent the tradition of my hometown and the state of my family. I have the honor of representing that to the American audience,” Martinez said.

However, she added that with newfound acknowledgement comes more obligations.

“It's a great responsibility because I know that I am going to receive new people and new customers so I have to maintain a standard,” said Martinez.

As she prepares to welcome more customers with her new Casa Mexico restaurant just three blocks away from South Philly Barbacoa, she’s also focusing on her initiative, the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers' Rights organization.

However, Martinez stated that this is something that she is solely focusing on at the moment.

“The popular alliance organization was something that we were working with doing a handful of dinners, but right now we are just kind of doing things on our own,” she said.

Not only is the award winner dedicated to bringing undocumented workers their human rights, she also wants to see them being appreciated in the kitchen.

“I want to make sure that they have the right tools, the proper salaries, and their human rights are protected,” she said. “We want their human rights protected and that they are legally allowed to work without working under a fake name and that they have full access to their human rights.”

According to Civil Eats, undocumented immigrants comprise 10 percent of all restaurant employees in the U.S., and as many as 40 percent in urban areas, such as Los Angeles and New York.

Undocumented immigrants as a whole, pay billions in taxes and a higher effective tax rate average than the top 1 percent of taxpayers (8 percent versus 5.4 percent). However, they receive no civil rights when it comes to the American restaurant workforce.

Martinez says that Americans have to fight the bias that is within restaurants all over the country.

“We have to look at ourselves and find out what is the right thing to do and really look into equality and equal rights and we really have to act on it,” she said.

Another venture that Martinez is working on is her new restaurant, Casa Mexico. 

The dishes are heartwarming guisados, such as an array of moles, salsas, served with fresh tortillas for dipping.

The restaurant will have five different guisados, made from pork, beef, or chicken, and will vary everyday to keep customers intrigued.

Check out South Philly Barbacoa on 1140 S 9th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147. The restaurant is open on Saturdays and Sundays only from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m.

If you want to indulge in some flavorful comfort food, visit Casa Mexico on 1143 S. 9th Street.


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