Chef cooks with flavors of home

If you think you've had a busy year, you've got nothing on Margarita Challenger.

Earlier this year she and her husband, Mark, expanded their Glencoe restaurant from a small taqueria (called Wholey Guacamole) to thriving restaurant (now Guanajuato), revamped the menu to include more family recipes and favorite street foods (like homemade ice cream reminiscent of that from her hometown of Dolores Hidalgo in central Mexico) and kept up with their four kids (including two teenagers). And they're getting ready to open another restaurant, Everest Burger, in January

Challenger grew up knowing she wanted to own a restaurant someday.

“I just love food and more than anything I love to share food with friends and family.

“Growing up everything revolved around the kitchen,” she recalls. “I'd be eating breakfast and my mom would ask ‘what do you want for lunch?' and at lunch my mom would ask ‘what do you want for dinner?' My family revolved around the kitchen.

She moved to the United States when she was 19 and began waiting tables. After earning her degree from Washburne Culinary Institute in Chicago worked in high-end restaurants and later ran a catering business with two chef/friends.

In 2008, she and Mark purchased Wholey Guacamole and began the process of turning it into their own place.

When she's not at the restaurant she's at home in Long Grove with her family – Brian, 15, Hope, 14, Christian. 11, Mercy, 9 – three dogs and a hamster.

What and where was your first restaurant job? What did it teach you? I worked for Red Kerr's Restaurant in downtown Chicago. I didn't know much about cooking yet so I worked the salad station. While I working the salad station a customer was dissatisfied with some brown lettuce which I hadn't seen. That's when I learned to take responsibility, because I had served the salad and it was my job to make sure the food looked good.

Any culinary mentors along the way? My mentors were chef Jean Joho and his sous chef Mike at Everest. I learned the intensity and seriousness of wanting to make what you create beautiful by watching them. They taught me perfectionism. I like to think that I still use that perfectionism today but my own version of perfect. I just want food to be good and beautiful.

What is your culinary philosophy? Cook happily and with love because your energy goes into the food.

What was your favorite street food growing up? How is it translated on the Guanajuato menu? My favorite street food was tacos and all the spices. Tacos were a big part and are a big part of Mexican finger food. I grew up with it. I remember a neighbor who would cook crispy tacos and enchiladas on a grill in front of her house. The spices were the best part. I use that spicy heat today in Guanajuato. Spices and hot peppers send a heat wave through the restaurant.

What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? This is a tough question. I use pico de Gallo in the restaurant in lots of recipes, but I really love using cilantro, peppers, tomatoes and spinach. I use spinach a lot on the menu. I add cilantro and onions to everything I eat.

What was the last meal you cooked at home? I made Cornish hen with cranberry stuffing and green beans.

How do you involve your children in the kitchen? My daughter washes the dishes, and my oldest son is good at making breakfast. My children used to be more involved. One would set the table, one would clean the veggies, one would carry stuff to the table, and one would do dishes, but as the kids grow up life gets busier the routine has fallen apart.

What do you do in your free time? I love to spend time with my family first and foremost. I also love comedy movies and reading. My family loves to read, so we have stacks of books everywhere!

Tell us about this recipe: Mom's meatballs. A memory that stands out the most would be learning to cook when I was 7 or 8 years old. I only knew how to make my mother's recipe of meatballs and rice.

Try this at home or at Guanajuato (pronounced juan-a-wotto), 73 Green Bay Road, Glencoe. (847) 242-0909.

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