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Meet the Biblioteca José Manuel Leal, “El Chef”

Isabel and Manolo

By Karla Ortiz

José Manuel Leal, better known as “Manolo” or “Chef,” is responsible for bringing food to the hungry stomachs of people who arrive each day at the Café Santa Ana. Chef, like many others in the library, is passionate about his work. You could say that he is living in his wonderful years. He is finally doing what he likes and gaining from it. Even though he has not studied anything related to cooking, he mentions that he was in a workshop at the Instituto Allende. In reality he learned everything he knows over time and in different ways. If he had the opportunity and time, he would like to learn more about this work that he is passionate about. He likes everything about cooking, but above all he likes to bake. He knows how to make some drinks because “previously the cafeteria had the permission to sell alcoholic drinks, and at that time I had just come in, and there were days that I was in the bar, or they called me to prepare margaritas, a drink that I really like to prepare. Since the kitchen and the bar were together, it was easier to help with everything, to prepare coffee, cappuccino, margaritas, or whatever.”

Before starting in the food business, José Manuel worked for some foreigners. Later, he worked in El Mesón de San José for eight years. There he met the then manager of the Santa Ana Café, who brought him in as a chef in the cafeteria, “I was climbing and climbing! I always liked to cook, but I had never had the opportunity to work in the kitchen,” said Chef.

José Manuel has been working for the library for 11 years. He has learned to integrate the staff into a linear work team, so that without doing less or more, everyone helps each other in high season when people have to wait for tables to be able to have a coffee in the shade of the bougainvillea and with the sound of the water falling in the fountain. At seven in the morning he gets up to travel to the Biblioteca by bus. He lives in the community of Orduña, which usually takes 30 minutes of travel time although there are times when he doesn’t make the bus or it doesn’t stop, and he has to walk to the library. He arrives at 8:30 in the morning to prepare everything that must be ready for opening at nine o’clock. At that time, customers are already waiting. Muffins are the star of the house. That’s why the coffee must be distinguished; people who arrive early usually order their coffee with a muffin fresh out of the oven. They know they are made fresh that morning. The chef told us that this recipe was a modification of another, and over the years he was perfecting it to make the ideal muffin to accompany a good cup of coffee.

People also arrive early to order a lot of the chef’s burgers, either for breakfast or lunch. They are the most ordered dishes. “I think all of San Miguel’s burgers are good, but the ones here have a different twist,” noted the chef.

Chef’s job in the cafeteria is to prepare dishes in separate portions, make the desserts, and, well, “everything.” There are days when the clientele “is heavy,” and the staff doesn’t have enough time to take care of everybody, and that is when they join as a team,” said the chef. Then sometimes everyone does a bit of “everything”: being a waiter, bussing tables, acting as a cashier, or preparing dishes. His main challenge is to try to ensure that coffee quality doesn’t fall during the off-season. He also wants to provide the best service in the high season when sometimes there are not even enough tables, and there is stress. For him the best solution is to remain calm and to avoid disappointing customers through communication, mentioning that the café is full, and they can wait for a table or that the dishes can take a while. Although some take it badly, there are always more people who understand and decide to wait. At the end of the day, Chef returns home with just the desire to rest. Sometimes he wants to continue cooking, but often he wants to play a sport, run, or go to the gym because that’s something else that he is also passionate about but doesn’t have enough time for. Chef invites the entire community to try Café Santa Ana’s dishes, burgers, and muffins, especially those who haven’t tried something from a library kitchen.


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