“I think it was destiny … now I’m doing what I love”
There’s a giant tortilla machine strapped to the counter. Hair net on, cloth tied to his wrist, Vladimir Gonzalez is on a mission – hand crafting a big batch of tortillas for the Airdrie Farmers’ Market.
A chemical engineer by profession, his “formula” is two simple ingredients – organic corn flour and water. No preservatives, non-GMO, individually hand crafted with love – even if that means calloused fingertips and the odd burn on the forearm (hence the dishcloth bandage).
“You have to know exactly when to flip,” says Gonzalez, having himself learned from two master chefs – his mother in Mexico City, and his grandmother, who he’d visit as a young boy in San Luis Acatlán, a small town near Acapulco in southern Mexico.
Kneeling over a stone slab with her roller, grandma would grind the corn by hand before making the dough (masa) and rolling out her tortillas.
“I never forget the taste of those tortillas,” he says longingly in his Spanish accent. “The flavour is ‘wow’!”
Today, in a rented commercial kitchen in Airdrie, Gonzalez uses a shiny $3,000 Tortimax steel behemoth imported from Mexico. He secures it to the counter with heavy-duty tie-down straps, stuffs the masa up top, and cranks out perfect little discs ready for baking on the hot pans at the Social Supper kitchen in Kings Heights.
Once cooled, the tortillas are stacked, cut into eights by hand, and fried into chips. They’re lovingly dusted while warm with flavours like jalapeño, chili-lime, garlic and “tomatonion.”
The chips pack a punch – even though Gonzalez says he’s “turned down the spice big time”.
“My daughter eats the chili-lime like candy,” says the father of two, who moved the family to Airdrie after he grew tired of commuting to Fort Mac from Toronto. Two months after they arrived, he lost his job in the oil patch.
It was the third layoff since Gonzalez came to Canada in 2002. This time, with his severance pay, he gathered up the courage to pursue his true passion, and started Maxi Foods.
“I think it was destiny … now I’m doing what I love,” he says.
In addition to tortillas and chips, Maxi Foods offers a variety of authentic salsas, guacamole, and dips.
At first, he was taken aback by local sensitivities and preferences.
“In Mexico, I never heard of someone who doesn’t like cilantro … Whaaat??,” he laughs.
He also meets people at farmers’ markets who are allergic to garlic, tomato and corn. Over time, he’s adjusted his recipes to suit local tastes. He also offers vegan varieties of his jalapeño and chipotle creams, substituting the dairy with organic cashews.
He wants to add products like mole (traditional dark sauce), a cooked salsa, habanero cream, and eventually branch out into entire Mexican meal kits – but always authentic.
“You’ll never see a Mexican eating a fajita,” he says jokingly. Even burritos are only found near the U.S. border, far from his family home where his mom, who still doesn’t like to use a fridge, goes to the market every day and prepares fresh meals.
So now, the former engineer spends 10 to 20 hours a week in the kitchen, cooking tortillas, frying chips, chopping salsas, and mixing up dips. And another 30 hours at four different markets each week, including Airdrie, Crossfield, Stephen Avenue in downtown Calgary, and cSPACE near Marda Loop.
“I like to eat good food,” Gonzalez says simply. And judging by the stream of emails and pictures his customers send him, it looks like they enjoy his authentic Mexican food too.