During the day, the kitchen at Durham's Mothers & Sons is a crashing cacophony of cooks. Prep cooks arrive at eight a.m. to begin chopping and slicing through the day's menu. Line cooks and chefs stroll in by ten, stoking the fire under the rotisserie and slamming through stacks of sauté pans sullied by a year's worth of flames. By midday, dishwashers are scrubbing over sinks, and bodies start bumping up against one another, shuffling and contorting through a maze of knife-wielding artists in crisp white aprons and graphic tees.
And then it all begins to sound harmonious. The high shrill of trumpets carries a Mexican banda melody through a cellphone speaker as cooks Nora Mendez and Lorena Reynoso shape pasta on a prep table. Chef-owner Josh DeCarolis and a couple of his right-hand men, Jorge "George" Ruiz and Robert Watson, swim past the ladies on a stream of "What's up, bro" as they head to the stove, dodging Mendez's playful teasing. "Hey, Gordo!" she yells at DeCarolis. Everyone else calls him Skinny (because he is).
A restaurant kitchen, no matter how spacious, demands close quarters. It involves shouting, nicknames, delirium—all the emotions that come with hard work. Or, if you're being realistic, a family dynamic. And for DeCarolis, it defines the familial ethos with which he created Mothers & Sons.
"I remember I worked at Ritz-Carlton and I felt like a number—because I was a number," he says. "But here, we keep it pretty tight. We don't have a lot of turnover. When we're done with work, instead of wanting to strangle each other, we go get a beer."
The camaraderie translates to the table, even if that table is actually just your knee or your lap as you prop up against a steel prep table or stove range. Anyone who's worked in a restaurant knows that "family meal" is a back-of-the-house treasure, a time for chefs and cooks to take a break from the daily grind of feeding a community and instead feed one another. In most local kitchens, family meal translates into "la comida," or a big shared lunch prepared by the immigrant cooks.
DeCarolis and Mendez have been cooking for each other for almost twelve years. They've worked side by side at various restaurants, beginning at Chapel Hill's Jujube. "It's a family business," says DeCarolis of his relationship with the Mendez family. Mendez's brother was DeCarolis's sous chef at a point; her son, his prep cook; her other brother worked the line with him at Mateo.
When he opened Mothers & Sons, DeCarolis called on Mendez to be in charge of the prep cooks. "It's very comforting to know that you have this person who really wants to work, and she knows her stuff," he says. "Sure, we're making different food, but she knows what tastes good. Nothing's bland. She knows what it needs."
Both DeCarolis and Mendez are playful and charming, in full command of their tasks while reveling in constant wisecracks. Mendez, who I've known for years, tells me that this is the best place she's worked.
"No hay distinción a nadie," she says. Everyone is treated the same.
She makes lunches for the crew about four times a week. One Tuesday morning, her first task at eight-thirty a.m. was to assemble the marinade for a chicken barbacoa, using a recipe from Chiapas, Mexico, where her parents are from. (Mendez is from the coast of Veracruz.) In it: a plethora of chiles, including ancho, guajillo, morita; juices from fresh oranges and limes; crushed and chopped garlic and onion; dried avocado leaves; cumin, pepper, cloves.
Mendez's natural inclination to feed comes from the idea that "Mexicans share their food." DeCarolis shares the same kind of familial connections to food and food traditions as his cooks.
"Latino culture and my upbringing, Italian-American, is pretty much the same," he says. "Kind of old-fashioned. It's not just about making food and subsisting. It's 'Eat, eat, please eat, you're gonna eat! You look skinny. I'm putting more on your plate.'"