I’m from San Diego, California, originally, but I got the hell out when I was 17. San Diego's very beautiful, and my entire family still lives there, but it just felt very much like a monoculture to me, especially as a teenager.

I've lived in New York for six years now, but first I moved to Paris. I just used some school as an excuse to get out of San Diego. Then I lived in Berlin, in Prague. I developed negatives for a photography program based out of New Orleans. And then I moved to the Bay Area for a long time.

I lived in San Francisco for about eight years, just being a bum for all my 20s. But I got burnt out on the city. It was very rapidly changing. Flash mobs were kind of big at that time, and I remember thinking, "This is the nerdiest thing." Because it was tech-company flash mobs. It was Google flash mobs, doing the Thriller dance at the 16th Street BART Station, surrounded by homeless people, and I was just like, “This is the most fucked up shit I’ve ever seen.”

But then a friend from San Francisco was driving cross-country with an old high school friend of theirs who happened to be a chef on Nantucket. I met this guy for 20 minutes, and two months later he called me and asked if I wanted a job in Nantucket, so I said yeah. I remember hanging up and going online to see where Nantucket was. And I thought, while I'm out there, I might as well move to New York.

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I tend to think about the whole trajectory of my time in New York as really just “before El Rey” and “after El Rey.”

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I've been working in restaurants or food since I was 15. When I moved here, it was a funny time when I was sober and wasn't going out. I was just focused on working. I felt that I’d spent my 20s drinking too much and partying too much, and so this was my moment to buckle down. For once, I wanted to feel like I was setting down roots somewhere.

I was working as a sous chef at a restaurant called Goat Town in the East Village, and the person who owned that place opened up a small coffee shop on the Lower East Side called El Rey. At the time I didn't think I liked restaurants very much, because the industry felt very exploitative. So I stepped down as a sous chef and started as El Rey’s baker. They didn't even have food, they just had baked goods. And they were all made in house. So I did the baked goods.

For the first three months, I was just the baker, but the owner at the time felt like we weren’t big enough. So on Christmas day we closed and built a lunch counter, and it was the right time and right place and we caught on right before the California-healthy thing happened.

It was definitely a collaboration between the two of us—the owner and me. We’re both from California, and I think we both understood those sensibilities and that people wanted to eat a little bit lighter.

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I tend to think about the whole trajectory of my time in New York as really just “before El Rey” and “after El Rey.” El Rey was just such a rocket that it took me from here to there in the matter of three years. Literally every five months I felt like something major happened.

When I first moved to here, I was eating at Juice Press a lot, even though I definitely couldn't afford it at that time. They were still making all the food in each individual shop then, and, honestly, as a cook, I thought they had the best flavors—the most unique flavors, because nobody else was doing anything like that in New York. I’d had similar stuff in San Francisco—there was Café Gratitude and all that raw and vegan stuff—but the flavor profile was just so different. It was really refreshing. It was during the height of the farm-to-table kind of shit where everything was really heavy, buttery, and very country-French. It just seemed more interesting, so that's why we went in that direction.

We didn’t realize how big it was going to become. It totally took us by surprise. Looking at the numbers every month when I took over—for 650 square feet, it was just insane how successful we were.

It wasn't perfect. It was one of my first forays into management, and I've learned a lot, but I think there was something very special about it. I really cared about all the employees that worked there, and we set up a model that I still think hasn't really been explored that much in New York. Since it was so small and everybody was serving, busing tables, and all that stuff, everybody was in the tip pool, except myself. So there wasn’t a real hierarchy of staffing—which happens in most restaurants—and everybody was making really great money. It’s really tricky to try and fix the system, but that model actually worked there and it was really beautiful. There was an energy behind it.

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I'm not trying to romanticize things, but it's definitely something that I'm proud of. There was a crew of people, and we did something together. It’s evident in how crazy the sales were, the lines, the trust that everybody had in us that anything we put out they would wanna eat up. Some of the smartest people I've ever worked with I got to know either on staff there or as customers. It was just a really amazing and beautiful thing.

My whole life changed because of that. Every six months, a review would come out. We got two reviews from the New York Times: one as part of their casual eats section and a one-starred one for our dinner service. For a coffee shop, it was kind of crazy. That whole experience taught me to stand up for what I believe in and drove me to open Lalito. My partners here were regulars at El Rey who had been there since day one.

There’s a big difference between being management and having straight-up skin in the game.

The funny thing about opening a place is that whatever you have in your mind leading up to the opening, the moment you open the doors it's gonna be completely obliterated. It all changes. Which I'm sure is true about basically anything. I think now that the cool thing is that there's no perfect answer, and I think we're just striving to try to do things a little bit differently. Again, that's not to say that it goes off perfectly, but I think there's starting to be more of a shift towards the environment that you create for the employees.

There’s also a big difference between being management and having straight-up skin in the game. It's rewarding because you can start to make those decisions that are more about how you want to change the industry. Actually putting your money where you mouth is. But I think it's hard because we opened up the week after the election. And that changed a lot of things. It still residually affects, like, how people want to participate in their day-to-day life.

Putting CBD in lattes seems counterproductive to me, because it's like uppers and downers.

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It was tricky to open in that type of climate. In a lot of ways, I don't think anybody signed up for the type of personal and political growth that was gonna happen within me at that time. I was already feeling this towards the end of El Rey, but I think the wellness thing started to get out of control, with people using it as a tool to gain social media followers and stuff like that. I was really questioning the purpose of that kind of thing when there was real shit going on around the world. Like when a Black Lives Matter protest is happening literally a block from work, and I’m sitting there being like, why am I here and not there?

We started throwing these parties, like our Tres Leches dinner. We were using them as a Trojan horse to delve into ideas of celebration, or empowerment, or conversation and dialogue. We've used them as a vehicle to raise money in some cases, and it's really just presented this opportunity to educate people on what's going on around the world.

We've done stuff like a benefit for Puerto Rico that ended up being about food sovereignty and policy. We've also done an event with a friend of mine who is Palestinian-American, trying to give visibility and a voice to Palestinian food.

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I'm just really bad at being a capitalist.

Food is an instant dialogue-starter because you can sit at a table with someone and start talking. If you go a little bit deeper than that—deeper than just going out to eat or looking at food as a pleasurable or entertaining thing—and look at what’s actually behind it, it's very political. There's so much social construct behind it. There's so much more involved, physiologically, culturally, and spiritually. I think that's ultimately what's always gonna motivate me: creating those support networks, so that there's a platform for people to have a voice. That’s more motivating than trying to build like a global franchise or something.

Honestly, what happened was just over the past year my priorities, well, not necessarily shifted, but my ideas of what success meant weren’t being bombarded or blocked with ideas of what needed to be done to be successful.

I was working every day at El Rey, busting my ass. Really hardcore. I just had this feeling of you have to do this. You can't go visit sick family because you have to work, or you have to do this event because it will lead to the next big thing. Or you need to partner with this brand because it will lead to this. And I think at Lalito, I just stopped giving a shit about that kind of stuff. I also learned from it.

At El Rey, when I would see a frivolous trend come around, I felt pressured to participate in it. I remember one time there was going be a story on charcoal and we didn't have anything on the menu, but it was like, just make something up so that we can be on this list. And I’ve just stopped doing that. I'm not gonna chase trends, at least not in that kind of sense. If I create something, and it's the right time and place and just happens to be part of the trend wave at a certain point, then cool. That's natural, it happens. But if you're jumping on at the crest and you didn't do anything to build into it, then it's just gimmicky to me.

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That’s kind of why I had a little bit of a problem with the idea of cooking with THC. I felt it was a little hokey, like a gimmick, and like a “we’re all getting high” kind of thing. But with CBD, it becomes about really using it as a flavor profile. And that to me is more fascinating. I'm an old man now, and I don't want to rely on alcohol and booze. I want to be able to have a good meal, maybe take a little walk, and go to sleep after that. And CBD felt like a really fun way to play around with those kinds of properties. Putting CBD in lattes seems counterproductive to me, because it's like uppers and downers. But it makes sense to use it as a flavor ingredient in a dessert.

There’s also a lot of politics that come into the conversation with THC. Especially in New York City, where you literally have Rikers right there, where there are a lot of black and brown people who have been busted—and haven't even gone to trial—on minimal possession charges.

And then you have this whole industry of the people who are starting to get into, like, THC-sugar production, and it's all white men. I don't know. It just feels opportunistic. I'm not simply trying to just paint this altruistic picture, but I'm just really bad at being a capitalist. I'd rather make no money and try to create something beautiful and positive.

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This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Gerardo Gonzalez photographed by Meredith Jenks at Lalito in New York City.