BOLINGBROOK – Growing up, Juan Luis Gonzalez learned to cook authentic Latin cuisine working aside his mother and grandmother, the owners of a small, bustling Mexico City cafe.
Today, the 39-year-old Woodridge resident is the one educating aspiring chefs and feeding the suburban residents who flock to one of his three Mago Grill and Cantina restaurants.
July marks the two-year anniversary of the Mago location at the Promenade Bolingbrook, and in spite of Gonzalez's and co-owner Ric Munoz's recent successes – opening three restaurants in as many years, appearing in countless television and radio programs, receiving several culinary awards and accolades – the head chef often shies away from the limelight, instead flexing his creative cooking muscles in the kitchen.
Gonzalez works six days a week in the Bolingbrook Mago kitchen, preparing an authentic Mexican and Latin menu that includes empenadas, ceviches, enchiladas and ten different kinds of tacos. The chef even personally prepares a variety of moles and salsas, some of which can include up to 40 ingredients, he said.
"Cooking is what I love to do and it is my inspiration, my passion, my way of life," Gonzalez said. "I believe that you should do what you love and share your talents with others."
Although the Mago executive chef was never employed in a formal restaurant setting until he emigrated from Mexico City to the western suburbs in 1996, he recalls cooking for hundreds of friends and family members on birthdays and holidays.
"In Mexico, birthdays are like national holidays and festivals," Gonzalez said. "I will never forget the passion my mother and grandmother showed when cooking on special occasions. It is something I forever cherish and pass onto my children."
Gonzalez says that he moved to the United States to "pursue something different." He stayed with family in Woodridge and soon landed a job washing dishes at Trattoria Vivaldi, now Isabella Pizza Capri in Downers Grove.
Three months later, he was promoted to food prep and within half a year, Gonzalez was one of the main cooks at Trattoria Vivaldi.
But, Gonzalez yearned for a taste of Mexico.
"On Sundays, I would take my wife and children out to dinner, but there was no authentic Mexican food in the area. I then made it my mission to bring authentic Mexican and Latin cuisine to the western suburbs," he said.
After opening the successful Arlington Heights restaurant Fuego Mexican Grill and Margarita Bar in 2005, Gonzalez left and launched Mago in 2010 – Mago is Spanish for magician.
For Gonzalez, it has never been solely about bottom lines and profit margins. The chef wholeheartedly believes that success and happiness are the product of hard work and passion.
"If you work for money, you will never be completely successful," Gonzalez said. "You have to do what brings you joy. If you love what you do, success will follow."