Juan Carlos Pérez
Long Road from Mexico
By Nikki Bailey / Images By Joern Rohde
F rom the warmth of Veracruz to the snowy peaks of Whistler, it has been a long road for Mexican Corner Chef Juan Carlos Pérez, who shares his inspirational immigrant story. Climb the stairs to the restaurant in the heart of Whistler Village and you’ll be rewarded with a slice of authentic Mexican hospitality: Indigenous art from Chiapas and Oaxaca adorns the walls, bright traditional glazed tiles frame the open kitchen, and the scent of fresh spices fills the air over the hubbub of chatter and clink of over-sized margarita glasses. “It’s home,” Pérez says. “You come in, you feel the warmth, and you’re in Mexico. We love to create that ambience and experience for our guests.”
It’s a long way from Pérez’s original hometown, the UNESCO World Heritage fishing port of Tlacotalpan, Mexico, to the snow-topped mountains of Whistler, and it’s been a tough journey — a true testament to his determination to make a better life for his family. Growing up in the historic city of Tlacotalpan, Pérez remembers learning to cook with his mother, and days spent on the boat with his fisherman father. “I remember once my dad was trying to teach me how to fish. All day long, my dad caught nothing while I caught fish after fish! Dad wasn’t happy. He was meant to be the master, but it was the student who made the money to feed the family that day!”
Pérez learned his love of cooking from his mother. “Cooking together was part of my upbringing,” he recalls. “I loved learning from mum. She was so patient and taught me how to chop, how to treat ingredients with respect and how to come up with the best possible dish.” Her specialty, a molé, is on the menu now at Mexican Corner, served up with enchiladas. (“I’m never going to say it’s as good as my mum’s! Hers was killer. Mine is pretty good though!”)
Growing up with a strong work ethic gave Pérez the determination to leave home and embark on his career at a hotel in Cancun — starting at the bottom as a dishwasher. It was here that he met legendary Mexican chef Samuel Islas, who became his teacher and mentor, encouraging Pérez to study to become a cook and learn more about international and different regional Mexican cuisines.
Through hard work, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming an executive chef in 1994, the same year his daughter Alejandra was born. A decade later, Pérez decided it was time to set his sights on Canada to seek a better life for his family, but the only work permits available were for housekeeping. So, showing determination, he left the chef’s life and became a cleaner. “It taught me about being humble, and I learned respect,” says Pérez. “My motivation when I was unable to cook was supporting my daughter’s studies. I didn’t know when I’d get back in the kitchen again, but it was worth it to help my daughter.”
In 2008, Pérez made it to Whistler for the first time. He worked as a dishwasher in Pemberton, parlaying that into a chef’s role the following year. “For me, Whistler is all about tranquillity,” Pérez says. “I love the beauty of the mountains and wild nature. It’s been a radical change in terms of experience from Mexico to B.C. I just love how peaceful it is.”
In the summer of 2012, Pérez heard of a new company looking to open a Whistler restaurant dedicated to Mexican food. After a meeting with Infinity Enterprises founder Pepe Barajas, Pérez was hired and began to assemble a dedicated team of Mexican chefs from different regions, each bringing their unique skills and recipes to create a menu of regional specialties, including, of course, Momma’s killer molé.
When winter comes, you’ll find Pérez soaking in the hot tubs at Scandinave Spa (“I love going from hot to cold and back again!”) or walking the trails on snowy days under the canopy of trees around locals’ favourite Loggers Lake or the Joffre Lakes, watching the colours and mountains reflected in the water.
Reflecting on his journey, including the tough times working as a dishwasher and cleaner and waiting for work permits to come through, Pérez feels lucky to be in Whistler. “I’m fortunate,” he says. “I know it hasn’t been easy, but I am so grateful for the people I am surrounded by now and the opportunities I have.” themexicancorner.ca