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Tortilla togetherness: Chef helps dad toward life goal

June 23, 2019

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Walk into Mawi Tortilleria and the aroma of corn tortillas still puffy-hot from the oven fills the one-room shop.

On Will Avelar’s first visit, the smell instantly brought back a piece of his childhood in Costa Rica. For his father, Carlos Avelar, it evoked older memories of El Salvador, the homeland he left behind a generation earlier.

They also sensed a new opportunity in this tucked-away storefront in Metairie, which they soon bought and today run together.

It marked a dramatic change for Will, who was a rising star in celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant group. And it launched a father-and-son business now working a new niche in the city’s evolving food culture.

As the local Latin American community grows and sets down roots, this tiny tortilleria serves a role akin to the Sicilian bakeries that dotted New Orleans a century ago or the Vietnamese bakeries that emerged in more recent decades.

Mawi supplies fresh, handmade tortillas to local restaurants, and the shop has become a backstreet hub where transplants from many different parts of Latin America find a common connection to home.

“A good tortilla should have that homey taste,” said Carlos, lifting a hot, pliant tortilla off the production line. “It’s the flavor, the texture, the color, all of it. A good tortilla will bring you that memory of home, like mama used to make for you.”

Mawi Tortilleria is a small, straightforward, hands-on operation. Corn flour is mixed into masa with water and salt, then run through a chugging, jangling, gas-fired machine that presses and bakes it into toasty-flavored tortillas.

Stacks of tortillas are kept warm in a case, ready for walk-in customers, or loaded into Will’s Chevy Malibu for his daily delivery route to local restaurants.

Just a month ago, Will’s work looked very different. He had cooked in Lagasse’s restaurants for a decade when he was tapped in 2016 to help open Meril, the group’s always-buzzing Warehouse District restaurant.

He was chef de cuisine — a big step up. The strapping, handsome, then-31-year-old took to the role naturally. He worked dishes like boudin tamales and crispy turkey necks onto its menu of global small plates. He cooked at events and made media appearances.

He had been helping his father run Mawi, though it was a second job for both father and son. Carlos is a maintenance supervisor for apartments. Will’s decision to leave Meril surprised many, including his father.

“It scared me at first, because we were just beginning this,” said Carlos. “I wanted him to stay longer and build up his reputation more. He was becoming famous in the city, which made me very proud. I thought this would be a big step back for him.”

Mawi was originally started in 2016 by Alma and Julio Grajales, natives of Mexico who derived the name from a Mayan term for abundance. Will stumbled upon it while searching for fresh tortillas to use at Meril. He had found only packaged brands before spotting Mawi one day while driving his kids to school.

“I couldn’t believe it was here,” he said. “It was exactly what we were looking for.”

Within a year, the Grajales family told the chef they had to move and wanted to sell the entire tortilleria. Will thought of his father.

“My father always told me he wanted to have his own business,” Will said. “Here was something we could do together, and it was serving his community by bringing something we were lacking. Tortillas are part of a lot of celebrations for Latin American people. I knew this would appeal to him, because he could be part of that.”

Carlos, now 65, left his home in El Salvador in 1974. He was 19 and his country was in the throes of revolution. The military had occupied the university he was attending. The U.S. beckoned.

He started as a laborer in Idaho potato fields and later in Arizona watermelon patches. In New York he got a job as a maintenance worker. He eventually moved to New Orleans and found work on offshore oil platforms. He saved money and attended the University of New Orleans. The city became home.

“There were many hurdles with language and culture, but it was an adventure,” Carlos said.

Will was born in New Orleans and later lived with his mother, Sandra Ariza, in New York after she and Carlos separated. Will then moved with his mother to her native Costa Rica for his grade school years. He returned to Metairie to live with his father through high school.

Today, father and son both see that upbringing as a blessing.

“The more diverse a person is, the better their perspective is,” said Carlos. “I wanted my children to be multicultural. The only bad part is World Cup loyalties get more complicated.”

Carlos believed his son, with his American education, would become an architect or engineer. When he saw the pride and purpose Will put into cooking, however, he knew his son had found a calling.

Since Will has devoted himself full time to Mawi Tortilleria, his father sees a different trajectory for them both.

“Together, we can build this into what it should be,” said Carlos. “I always wanted to have something I could leave as a legacy.”

Will’s relationships in the New Orleans food world have opened more doors for Mawi since he made the leap. Some restaurant clients are obvious, others less so. For instance, Johnny Sanchez, the modern taqueria, gets 50-pound orders at a time, while the smokehouse Central City BBQ uses Mawi tortillas for a Mexican-barbecue mash-up taco platter special (on Tuesdays, of course).

“I’m going for chef-led, ingredient-led restaurants,” Will said. “When you bring them something like this, they understand it. It’s what I was always looking for as a chef.”

Back at the shop, Carlos marvels at the different types of people who find their way to his door, all on a quest for fresh tortillas.

“It’s the diversity of backgrounds we see because the Latin American community here is more diverse now,” he said. “Doctors and lawyers, house painters and brick layers, when they come in they all act the same. They want to linger. It reminds them of home.”

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Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, http://www.neworleansadvocate.com

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