When Iliana Lopez met her husband, Graham Gori, it was love at first bite.
Gori was working for the New York Times and Associated Press as a foreign correspondent in Mexico City when he bumped into Lopez, an art restorer.
In Mexico, explained Lopez, it was unusual for a man to do the cooking; and Gori was especially adept at the craft.
Some time and several delectable home-cooked meals later, the two were married and built a wood-fired oven on the top of their apartment building in Mexico City, christening it with boughs of rosemary and bay leaves. In the coming evenings, they served a medley of delicacies and accompanying libations to friends.
“We started cooking for our friends and they all said, ‘Open a restaurant,’ ” said Gori.
“Once you start doing something, you open the door for other things to happen,” he added, explaining that he decided to take a break from the news business and purchase a bakery in Guanajuato, Mexico, which he and Lopez then sold in order to open their first restaurant.
A few years later, Lopez, Gori and their three children moved from Mexico to Whidbey Island.
“We noticed that on Whidbey Island, there is a desire for what we can deliver: food made with heart, with soul, slowly and with traditional recipes that have been handed down from mother to daughter, grandmother to mother, grandmother to niece over hundreds of years,” he said.
Lacking funds but with an abundance of heart, the couple decided to work towards opening an authentic Latin American restaurant, Gori’s Gourmex, in Langley.
Gori noted that the South Whidbey community has already been quite supportive of his and Lopez’ endeavor, including allocating him a last-minute space at last Saturday’s Bayview Farmers Market where his product — pipian rojo and pozole verde with blue corn hominy — proved to be a hit with patrons.
“I am thrilled to support them,” said Vicky Brown of Little Brown Farms in an email to The Record. “Graham’s food is delicious and their family is hardworking and deserving. The authenticity they bring to the Latin American food is more than flair, they have lived it. It is a treat for us that they are bringing the tastes of where they lived to our doorstep.”
Gori noted that it is difficult to find a restaurant in the United States where the food is cooked with tenderness and love, where the focus is upon making patrons feel not only satisfied, but comforted.
“Food is such an incredibly effective avenue to reach people’s souls through their tummies,” said Gori. “Feeding people is related to nourishment, feeling safe. …It satisfies a need for people to feel loved.”
With strict health code regulations, he explained, restaurants are typically designed with functionality as a top priority.
“Most [restaurant] kitchens in the United States look like prisons: stainless steel, no windows,” he said. “It’s no wonder they’re all yelling at each other … the environment is not fun. Unfortunately, most people who work in kitchens are not the happiest people.”
“Very little do people sit down with architects and say I want this to reflect a womb of nurturing love,” he said with a chuckle. “I want this kitchen to be warm and cradling …you’d be laughed at.”
But, said Gori, this is precisely the objective he and Lopez have in mind.
“We use the recipes from my grandmother, who is from Oaxaca,” said Lopez, noting that her grandmother was especially protective of her recipes, refusing to share them with anyone, including family members.
“It’s so good that we started re-creating her dishes,” she explained, adding that Gori’s Sicilian grandmother was also a skilled cook.
“It’s not only sharing recipes, but also sharing a dedication to feed people,” said Gori of the handed-down traditions. “Food, in Italy and in Mexico, is central to everything,” said Gori, adding that he believes there is a desire in the United States for the kitchen to deliver similar soul-healing properties.
“Food heals, but in order for it to be healing it has to be made with love,” he said.
The handed-down Latin American recipes, he noted, are neither pretentious nor sophisticated but contain a history as rich as their flavors.
The history of food in Mexico, explained Gori, is unique in its mingling of indigenous culinary practices — such as the tortilla — with Iberian or Spanish influences.
“It’s a hybrid and it’s just awesome,” he said.
Lopez and Gori will be incorporating natural ingredients produced by Whidbey Island area farmers and friends — from banana leaves and blue corn to sun chokes and red peppers.
Menu items at Gori’s Gourmex will include pozole verde with pumpkin seeds, cochinita pibil in banana leaf, spicy sesame chicken in pipian rojo, stuffed cabbage dumplings in red sauce, coconut and plantain soup, black beans and fried yucca, white fish and shrimp ceviche with avocado and cilantro, blue corn tamales with kale and goat cheese, tres leches cake with agave and orange and organic, freshly- made blue corn tortillas.
Gori is also hoping to purchase a tortilla machine in order to produce what he calls the “nucleus” of Mexican cuisine.
In order to establish Gori’s Gourmex, Gori and Lopez have established a Kickstarter fundraising campaign with a goal of raising $16,000. As of Tuesday, they had raised $3,270 with six days to go. The campaign can be found at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/977902892/goris-gourmex-latin-american-bistro-in-langley-was.
Lopez recalled a popular Mexican saying which states that if you were born to cook tamales, the husks will fall from the sky.
“We feel that is happening,” she said.