Friday, February 11, 2011

Tony Moreno, owner of Taxco, with his brother and chef Eduardo, teaching students about cooking and life.
By Diana L. Chapman
They laughed heartily. They clapped several times during his spiel. They learned many tips about cooking and even more sprinkles about life from Tony Moreno, the proud owner of Taxco Restaurant in Rancho Palos Verdes for 25 years.
Carrying trays of food – cooking gear –and toting along his brother, the restaurant’s chef Eduardo, Moreno told San Pedro High students at an after school cooking club that running a successful restaurant means saving money, working hard and putting a lot of “heart” and “passion” into crafting a successful business.
“Do you guys like spicy or mild? Gringo or Mexican?” teased Moreno, 54, as his he and his brother demonstrated how to boil corn oil, chop lettuce in record speed time and prep for a festive Mexican meal. “Cooking is about using your imagination. You can make your own recipe and be proud of it.
“We do home style cooking. We have to think like Mama when we cook and the way mama used to cook.”
Some students related easily to Moreno’s story and clapped to hear that he came to the United States from a small town called La Yerbabuena in Mexico at age 17 with only $7 in his pocket – and still succeeded. That was in 1973.
 “I didn’t know any English. I didn’t know anything, but I had a dream,” Moreno explained while browning onions, adding in cupfuls of ripe, chopped tomatoes and  sprinkling in clumps of tasty-looking cheddar cheese.
Moreno, who made cooking look as simple as eating, fluttered about while grilling and Eduardo -- his “right hand man” -- sliced avocado to make fresh guacamole. The students were about to receive the  blessing of a gigantic meal – freshly made before their eyes:  tacos, chimichangas, taquitos, beans and guacamole – all of which Moreno donated for the occasion.
When Eduardo, the chef, was sharpening a knife, the students asked how to do it and Moreno popped off with a smile: “Wax on. Wax off,” making all the students giggle about his reference to the movie Karate Kid.
Moreno didn’t sit still once he arrived in San Pedro.
 He enrolled in adult school to learn English, took accounting courses – and even though it took him seven years – he graduated from high school. He took a three month course in culinary arts  and held every position in the restaurant business – busboy, cook, prep worker, delivery man.  Once he saved enough money  -- his wife agreeing to his dream – he opened his own restaurant after eleven years. It was called Taxco Café, but later renamed Pinas Café. He later sold it to his sister, Josefina, and his brother-in-law, Martin Magana, so they could start in their own business.
Shortly after, he opened the next Taxco Café on Western Avenue. Through the years, all five of his children, Elisa, Marissa, Eric, Tony Jr. and Luis, have helped in his restaurant. But he’d rather them all go to college, because working in a restaurant is “very hard,” he said.
“It’s like fireworks,” Moreno told students. “You have to be ready to sweat and work unusual hours. You have to able to sacrifice and be open with your hands to receive. What really helped us out was having faith. I took a chance.”
Visiting schools, Moreno said, is one of his ways to give back to the community which has supported him and his restaurant for 27 years.
Cooking Club teacher James Weston, who has run the after school club as a volunteer, was happy that Moreno shared his wealth of information.
“It was incredible,” Weston said. “It was incredible to have more than an amateur chef like me teaching class but rather an amazing person whose lessons transcend just cooking.”
The students gave Moreno a five star rating.
“He was really inspiring, funny and I learned you have to have heart,” for what you do, said Analeslie Martinez, a 15-year-old tenth grader.
“It was bomb,” said Ozzy Deras, also a 15-year-old tenth grader. “He told us how to know when food was ready and how to make some good guacamole.”
Moreno’s cooking tips:
--“Be organized.”
--“Gather all the materials together that you need.”
--“Have a good attitude. If you are in a bad mood, your food will taste bad.”
Moreno’s life tips:
--“Be humble.”
--“Do things with care and love,” including cooking
--“The minute you limit yourself, the other guy is there.”
--“In order to succeed, you have to do the dirty work.”
--“Do what you love.”
--“You must have an education. Tomorrow is too late”
“He’s a philosopher,” said student, Alexis Espados, 17, who wants to go culinary arts school and become a chef. “I really like him. He reminds me of my Dad. My Dad came the same way as he did. (Moreno) taught me you have to strive for what you like to do.”