The Most Sacred Thing
Jessica Fultz and Cat Traxler
Q: What is like working so closely together as a mother-daughter team?
Jessica: People all the time say, "Don’t go into business with your family." Our lawyer even "strongly suggested against" signing 50/50. But we're open six days a week, and on the seventh day we still are like, "Hey, want to hang out?" We have little tiff moments, but they disappear so quickly. I feel like we both know what the goal is. We both understand restaurants. I am in the back; she is in the front. The kitchen is my baby, and the front is her baby, and it works so well. The second most important part of this puzzle is that we respect each other so much. We're also so similar in our minds, in the way that we perceive food and wine.
Cat: One does not work without the other. I believe both of us are very clear about the reality that we are equally as important to the spirit and existence of La Sirena. But of course, there was hesitation, mindful hesitation. I think that the experiences I've had in life have shown me to be really cautious with my words. Let moments go. Come back later. Always end the day on a positive note. Also, it's just easy with Jessica; she's lovely and just a beautiful human being. One of the first signs we hung in between the kitchen and front of house says, "Think Good, Speak Good, Do Good."
Jessica: Cat is one of the smartest people I have ever met. I can't do what she does. There is a layer of really deep-rooted respect for each other, and I think that goes a long way.
Q: What were you memories of food growing up?
Jessica: When I was younger my mom bought a little local health food store here called WellBody. It had a little deli in it that offered a lot of vegan and vegetarian fare. Being around that culture of food where everybody was very conscientious, from recycling to the food that they ate to the way it was served. It was such a loving environment around food. At home it was the same way with the way she cooked — vegetarian as much as possible and all mindful ingredients. That's always how I have recognized food from a young age. That's how you think you're supposed to eat, until you meet the rest of the world and that's not how everybody eats.
Cat: WellBody was a game changer for all of us. I became a single mom around that time, and was just starting taking control of a lot of things about my life. I had my babies at home, so there was always a very conscientious way of living and eating going on in my life. At some point during those years, somehow a food movement started to happen in my life with my girlfriends. We started discovering elegant and gourmet ways to prepare food and do things, and that is also when I discovered wine. We would have wonderful campfire gourmet meals. We would go camping and take salmon and pinons and mangos to grill and prepare. It was magical. We took a lot of care in making food as close to how it is in nature as possible.
Jessica: Camping is a great example of memories I had when I was younger. Every time we ate, it wasn't just shoving food into your mouth. It was something that was prepared and took time and a time when family comes together. It always meant something. It was always a sacred thing.
Cat: I have a 6-year-old grandson, and one of the very first words he learned to say was CHEERS! I love it! We have been blessed with a beautiful family and group of friends.
Q: Can you talk about the restaurant you have now and what inspired it?
Jessica: About eight years ago we almost started a restaurant together, and we were going to call it Salty Mermaids. During that transition time, my mom insisted I leave Lubbock to expand my culinary experiences and life in general. I chose San Francisco and thought if I could make it there, I could do anything. I ended up going to The California Culinary Acadamy and getting a job at a restaurant called Maven, which was California cuisine at its finest. I was actually living and working in Austin when Cat found this beautiful place that we are in. She said, "I've acquired the perfect location," and I was like, "That's great; so who is your chef going to be? Because I am not moving to Lubbock." And then it hit me one day, and I thought, "Yes, I am absolutely moving to Lubbock." I came in about a month before it opened, and it has ended up being perfect.
The Restaurant is called Cocina de La Sirena, the Kitchen of the Mermaid. I don't know how many years ago it's been since we identified as being mermaids. We've always thought of ourselves as land-locked mermaids that live in the desert. The restaurant is filled with a lot of relics from our past, things that we've gotten along the way we have kind of adorned La Sirena with. People will comment a lot when they walk through the door about the feeling of our restaurant — what we created out of love. Also, it's just the concept that eating is a beautiful, sacred thing, so when you come here it is almost like you have come to our house for dinner. We make everything from scratch daily, and it is all very thoughtful ingredients. I go the market every day, and it feels like making food for our closest friends.
Cat: So many experiences I've had in my life were my inspiration for La Sirena. I wanted a beautiful space that was off the beaten path, that made you feel like you were somewhere else, that had a European feel. I envisioned beautiful, sophisticated food that was naturally healthy. I love tequila and wine, so we have a tequila bar and a wine bar. I wanted all spaces — front of house and back of house, dish area and storage — to have an element of art and beauty. And now we have been open for 18 months. Everything is beautiful. There is art everywhere. The kitchen is beautiful. Everything is very thoughtfully placed in the restaurant.
Jessica: I feel like we are doing something very different for West Texas. One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to change the way Lubbock eats. We wanted to create a space for people who care about where their food comes from. We both felt there was a need for it, and there were people here that would support us. La Sirena now has a life of its own. We now have this peaceful place for all of these beautiful and wonderful minds in Lubbock to come to. That feels really great. It's about the food, it's about the atmosphere, and it's definitely about the people.
Q: As female chef/owners, have you experienced any obstacles?
Cat: We actually had a very well meaning and sincere customer ask Jessica, "What should I call you? Chef, or are you a chefette? Can women even be chefs?" We laugh a lot about that.
Jessica: I've been fortunate to work for amazing chefs, so that hasn't always been my culture. They created these beautiful kitchens where everybody respected each other, and even though I was a female I was rarely treated as anything less. Having many female friends in the industry, I know that is not the norm and I have myself borne the brunt of some very harsh sexism.
On that note, as a female in a chef position, we both try to be very aware of our employees. Even with my own kitchen staff, I love my kitchen, and they love me. We're all very supportive, and it's very refreshing and a nice change for a kitchen. I think it has changed me as a leader, going through all of that.
Cat: I think I've been doing this for so long that I just don't even notice anymore. Throughout my life as a business owner and general manager of a large restaurant, I have definitely had plenty of experiences where the rules are different.
Jessica: There are chefs that can be loud, yell at their staff, throw things when they get mad, and they are just great chefs; you don't even question it. But as soon as I raise my voice, I am crazy. It sets a double standard.
Q: Have you seen changes from when you started working with food to what the food world is like now?
Cat: It's really hard to say because we are owners. I do feel very empowered. Jessica's food is phenomenal, and so it's an instant respect that she has when people dine with us. Instantly they forget about any preconceived notion they had about her gender. We did a couple of events recently where Jessica experienced, "Oh, you're the female chef!" One of the male cooks actually called her a "real good cook." So, yes, it's still out there, but we are very much shielded from that because of the environment we have now made.
Jessica: I think that the kitchen culture is not as geared to aggressive chefs anymore. They are going out of style. Thirty years ago, you were expected to scream and yell and go insane. I don't think that is respected as much anymore. But even though there are more females going into the world, it's still a man's world. You have to change your attitude. You have to change your personality. You have to assimilate to be one of the boys to fit in.
Q: What advice would you give other women that you have learned and want to pass on?
Jessica: When we first opened and we weren't making it, I reached out to one of my mentors and friends and was like, "I don't know what to do; do I change my food? What do I do?" And he said, "You just keep being you. You've always been you in the kitchen. You've always made great food. So just keep doing that." And that's so true. Don't assimilate to anything. I was really going to change my whole menu to appease what I thought our clientele wanted and expected. I feel like that's how every female in the kitchen should be: Just be themselves. Don't be intimidated into becoming something you're not. You will find your kitchen. You will find your niche. Don't take it personally. If you believe in something and know something is right, then it is, so keep doing it.
Cat: You just have to let things roll off your back. My husband used to say this too when we would get way down: Just keep doing what you are doing. Don’t change a thing. Be true to yourself. Come from the heart and stick with it. And of course, be happy and loving and kind and patient. Be true, and don't give up.
Q: Who has inspired you along the way?
Jessica: Honestly, for me, seeing Cat when I was at a young age. She bought WellBody while she was on food stamps. Who does that? That made a huge impression in my young life. Even her telling me, "You're a woman; you're better than this." She always made me feel strong.
Cat: Honestly my PaPa was my biggest inspiration in life. He had these great sayings like, "You don't have to be a millionaire; just learn how to live like one." He taught me that you make your own way in life. If you don't like something, change it or change how you look at it. And most importantly, he inspired me to always be happy. To be any other way is a waste of time.
Jessica has been working in the restaurant industry since 1994, starting with her mother's natural food grocery and deli as a young teenager. After high school, she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she developed a passion for the culinary arts working in several fine dining eateries, including Santacafe, Amavi, and El Farol. After several years being mentored by great chefs, she then took the experience she gained to San Francisco and obtained a degree from The California Culinary Academy. There she worked at the chef-driven, farm-to-table-style restaurant, Maven. After graduation, Jessica moved back to Texas to work the culinary scene in Austin. She was a part of the reopening of iconic eatery Jeffrey's before exiting restaurants and becoming a private chef. In 2016, Chef Jessica moved back to Lubbock to partner with her mother, Cat, to open Cocina de La Sirena. This mother–daughter team, with their combined experience and their love for New Mexican cuisine, created a Latin-fusion menu using fresh ingredients with attention to organic, free-range, grass-fed and sustainable meats and produce.
Words: Jessica Fultz and Cat Traxler