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Davidvargas 603diversity7 1

“My mantra is basically ‘community to table.’ It’s not really farm to table anymore. It’s about the community and how I can bring it — use the platform of my restaurant, the tables of my restaurant, to basically get that word out there.”

While David Vargas has gained plenty of notoriety for his Mexican-style cuisine here on the Seacoast, he never imagined he would be recognized by his culinary peers as one of the top chefs in the nation.

The 45-year-old chef and restaurateur of Vida Cantina in Portsmouth and Ore Nell’s Barbecue in Kittery, Maine, is among the 20 semi-finalists nominated as the James Beard Award Outstanding Chef in January. The Beard Award is one of the most coveted honors in the culinary world. It is akin to a musical artist winning a Grammy or an actor winning an Academy Award. The winning chef will be announced in Chicago in June.

Vargas was nominated as “a restaurateur who uses their establishment(s) as a vehicle for building community, demonstrates creativity in entrepreneurship, integrity in restaurant operations, and is making efforts to create a sustainable work culture while contributing positively to their broader community.”

While the restaurant has received regional accolades from the James Beard Foundation, it’s the first time Vargas has made the Outstanding Chefs list.

“I mean, every time somebody says congratulations to me, I still get tingles all over. You know, it’s unreal. It’s absolutely unreal for sure,” Vargas says.

“I think one of the most common things that people say besides congratulations is: ‘What’s the next step?’ And I say, ‘Does there really have to be a next step?’ Like, this is it for me. You know, I’m good. I didn’t know a little taco shop out in New Hampshire would get so much publicity as it is. We’re just doing what we’re doing,” Vargas says.

Vargas learned about his nomination the morning the list was released. He and his family were in Stowe, Vt., to enjoy a day of snowboarding. He explains that he and his wife looked at the list and didn’t see his name at first glance. But upon further review, Vargas says they saw his name listed in the James Beard semi-finalist category.

“I was definitely in tears,” says Vargas. “To be recognized as one of the top 20 in America, that’s absolutely insane.”

Davidvargas 603diversity7 21Since 2011 Vargas, who originally hails from southern California, has been on a mission to change the narrative of how Mexican cuisine is perceived among the locals while using local ingredients.

Vargas’ affection and pride for his line of work stem from Mexican culture, which he believes is centered around family, food and upbringing. His parents are natives of Zalatitan, a community outside Guadalajara, Mexico, and ran a taqueria when he was growing up.

While this recognition clearly humbles Vargas, his family and his team, the work continues.

“You know, I do what I do not to get recognized for it,” he says. “I do what I do to help our community. And that’s the most important thing to me. Everything else that comes along with it, I feel just super blessed beyond it — give it up to the higher power or whatever that is or whoever it is,” Vargas explains.

Vargas has also established The New England BIPOC Festival. The event will be held in Vida Cantina’s parking lot on September 24 and will feature diverse food, art and culture. Making sure every branch of the BIPOC community is heard daily is important to Vargas.

“My mantra is basically ‘community to table,’” he says, “It’s not really farm to table anymore. It’s about the community and how I can bring it — use the platform of my restaurant, the tables of my restaurant, to basically get that word out there. People are starting to understand it. But for me to say it’s solidified and we’re there, no, not at all, because there is so much work to be done.”

603diversity Issue7This article is featured in the spring-summer 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.

603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.

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Categories: 603 Diversity, Food & Drink