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Theme And Back

After living and working for years in America, a group of cooks from Puebla, Mexico, have returned home to infuse new life into their village’s restaurant scene.

Shaun Pett

Every meal at Milli begins with a complimentary chalupa. One of the cooks griddles a small, handmade corn tortilla atop a hot comal until it’s bronzed on both sides, then layers it with smoky red salsa and homemade queso fresco. It’s a humble gift—and a warming first taste of the restaurant’s pueblo cooking.

One of Milli’s owners, Leo Telléz, says that other local chefs who come to his restaurant often end their meal with hopes of emulating the dishes they tasted. A common line of questioning is about the restaurant’s fresh masa. Leo answers amicably, knowing that the skill takes time to hone. “If you just want the final dish, that’s not how it works,” he says. “You have to feel the maiz, touch it, even plant it.”

His year-old restaurant in San Pedro Cholula sits in a converted garage just a few blocks away from the town’s famous Tlachihualtepetl pyramid—the largest in the world. Leo and his four co-owners share the space with another friend, who turns it into a bar in the evenings. Corncobs of many colors hang amid pastel-colored bunting. Pictures of open fields and inscriptions in Nahuatl, the precolonial language of central Mexico, adorn the walls. Atop the tables are flower-shaped totomochtle sculptures made of cornhusks, created by female artisans in San Mateo Ozolco, an hour away.

Milli is remarkable for two reasons: First, most of the restaurant’s employees work there just half the week so they can tend to their farms in Ozolco on the remaining days. The heirloom maiz and most other ingredients used at the restaurant come fresh from either their own lands or their neighbors’. Second, all five of Milli’s founders are migrants. At some point in their lives, each of them left their home in Mexico for Philadelphia—where a large population of Ozolco natives currently reside—and have since made the journey back. Because there are few government or community resources to support them, they are proactively creating culinary and agricultural opportunities for themselves and others. “If no one gives us anything,” Leo says, “we have to do things ourselves.”

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Fall 2019