illustration of Lissette Garay

Drawing Resilience: Lissette Garay

Illustrations and interview by Nhatt Nichols 

Lissette Garay is a Michelin-trained Chef specializing in traditional Mexican cooking techniques. She and her wife Cassandra Garay own La Cocina, a restaurant in Port Townsend, Wa. Lissette has been working with the Organic Seed Alliance to create a type of masa corn for tortillas that will grow in the short daylight season of the Pacific Northwest. After years of research, the Garay’s and their staff are finally planting their first crop. Their dream is to make corn tortillas for their community with the smallest possible footprint, while creating jobs for local farmers and cooks. 

Nhatt: Can you tell me a little more about what you’re doing to bring resilience and stability to your place?  

Lissette: As a young cook learning in San Francisco, I was infatuated by the idea of farm-to-table. As a chef, I constantly just think, you know, how can we get everything more local? The beauty of where we live [is] we’re able to grow things. Why source it from 500 miles away, 1000 miles away? We can grow in our own backyard. 

Nhatt: It’s one thing to be in San Francisco and harvesting, But it’s something very different to live in a rural community and support friends and neighbors.  

Lissette: I think this area is on the verge of booming. All of these farmers keep growing and doing. It’s just so beautiful to slowly start to plant a seed and watch it grow. It’s very exciting. 

With global warming and seeing how different areas are being affected by mudslides, rain, and drought, we live in this place where it’s getting more ideal to grow, harvest, and find your own things.  

Nhatt: I love the idea of shortening that food chain so much.  

Lissette: I think about how many boxes [are shipped up] from Los Angeles and how much gas that takes. We’re doing it ourselves, and there’s not going to be any plastic bottles or any fuel used. We need to do better. Period.  

It is a lot of a lot of work. But if you want someone to believe in you, you have to lead by example. You know, I’ve been getting up and doing the rows by myself. And on top of running my business, my daughter was just born two months ago.  

Nhatt: How is being a parent affecting the way you think about resiliency and community? 

Lissette: It’s really put into perspective what we have been doing. I was very hesitant to even start this process this spring because she’s so young, but it’s a wonderful thing that we’ll be sharing together. 

The community is extremely excited about our project and what we’re doing. Essentially what we’re bringing to Jefferson County is something exciting, something that no one’s ever done before. It’s a special time.  

Tomorrow, half of the staff is going to be at the farm, and I’ll be holding down the fort. We’re all doing our part, working together to try to make this dream happen.  

Nhatt: This kind of corn doesn’t normally grow in the Northwest; it’s a monumental thing that you’re able to do this.

Lissette: Sometimes, I feel silly because I think it’s not going to work, not going to grow, and I’m wasting my time. Yeah, I really feel that sometimes I’m like, why am I getting up and doing this? What if it doesn’t work? But it’s been proven that the Organic Seed Alliance is able to grow two rows of it, so that makes me feel good. I feel optimistic. 

Nhatt: Every time I put anything in the ground. I worry it’s not going to work. 

Lissette: Yeah, of course. But I have people on my team. Daniel, he’s from Guatemala and has grown corn commercially. I couldn’t do it without him. The stars have aligned and sometimes you meet people. I’m not from here, but I feel slowly part of a community. 

Nhatt: It’s deeply cool to have the opportunity to grow, invest, and trust in people. 

Being a chef requires passion, curiosity, and an eagerness to engage with the world. 

Lissette: I’ve adopted this mentality in my career, working with these incredible chefs, and seeing firsthand how creative their mind is. always what’s next? What can we do? What can we do to make our dish perfect?  

To me it’s about keeping the integrity of the food. Always. Because food is so beautiful. It should be respected. 

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March 6, 2024

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