RENO, Nev. — Gustavo Velasco’s love affair with food began with grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs.
He was just 7 years old when he started cooking. By then, he could reach the stovetop, no problem. It was something he looked forward to doing when he got home from school.
His mother, Maria de Lourdes, said she would often find her son standing on a stool, cooking.
“Gustavo was a boy who loved food,” she said in Spanish. “He’s had a passion for the kitchen since he was very little.”
Lourdes, a former secretary for an educational institution in Mexico, worked long hours and her son was often home alone through the evening.
“I would never starve because I would always know what to do,” Velasco said.
Velasco is now an executive chef for the local Squeeze-In restaurant chain. He manages five restaurants and hopes to take on management for another Squeeze-In location in Las Vegas.
He also works as a personal chef and owns his own catering business, GUSTO Catering & Meals.
“Food was always around me and always prevalent,” he said.
Velasco grew up in Tepic, Mexico. His family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 14, and eventually, his mother moved him and his sister to Reno.
Velasco is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the U.S. About 643,560 people, mostly from Mexico, are benefiting from the DACA program, according to March 2020 data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
He studied to become a chef in the Culinary Arts Program at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, and in 2006, he became the first in his family to graduate from college.
Velasco loved the food he grew up with, and he learned to cook his favorite dishes at home. That love and learning continue in his kitchens today.
Hot dog wisdom
Growing up in Mexico, he savored the Sonoran hot dogs and sincronizadas he would buy from the local street vendors.
Sometimes, they would add grilled mushrooms and Swiss cheese to hamburgers. Other times, they would throw in ham, cheese, tomatoes and thinly sliced onions in his quesadillas. It was like eating a big pizza sandwiched between two tortillas.
“In Mexico, you would play soccer on the street with your camaradas, with your friends, and after the game, you would get a Coca-Cola and go to the hot dog and hamburger stand in the corner,” Velasco said. “You would just have the best time.”
Eating food from street vendors as well as with his cousin Juan Francisco inspired him. His cousin taught him to make hot dogs, quesadillas and paninis.
“But sometimes there wasn’t any hot dog bread, so he would improvise,” Velasco said. “He would do it with sandwich bread, and it would still turn out good.
“After that, I realized nothing should stop you,” he said. “It was a very small concept in life, but I realized that the hot dog bun should not stop you from having a hot dog with a bun.”
‘Platters are my canvas’
After graduating from TMCC, Velasco entered the restaurant industry and eventually, opened his own business in November 2016. Clients contact him for parties and other special occasions with most of his business coming from word of mouth, he said.
Rates of business ownership and formation are higher for immigrants than non-immigrants, a 2012 report for the Small Business Administration found. The report also found that immigrant entrepreneurs start 17% of new businesses in the U.S. and represent 13% of all business owners.
And more than 43,000 DACA-eligible residents were entrepreneurs in 2017, according to the New American Economy, a bipartisan research and immigration advocacy organization.
Once Velasco has a client, he’ll create a menu for them, usually including Asian cuisine and seafood. He adds his own twists, even when serving sushi.
“You have a quail shooter you would see at all-you-can-eat (restaurants),” Velasco said. “I adapted it more to have like a michelada quail shooter. So, it’s like a Mexican-Asian fusion, and they are delicious.”
Often, he won’t know how he wants to present the dishes until the day of the event. Sometimes, he’ll have an inspirational dream and wake up in the middle of the night.
“The platters are my canvas,” Velasco said. “I know something will happen with the different colors of my sauces and the different colors of the food … I try to keep adding volume, keep adding something into my menu. I usually keep surprises for customers.”
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His catering business has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“Less people want to go to restaurants because it’s riskier,” Velasco said, adding that large families are required to sit separately. “Now, people want to have their own parties from the comfort of their own home with their own safety measures and they call me. I’ve been very successful.”
He takes precautions and always wears his mask. At the end of the event, he’ll clean up their kitchens and leave “as if nothing happened.”
Velasco also hopes to launch online classes for kids. At one point, he partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern Nevada and offered virtual cooking classes. Yet when his business took off, he had to quit – temporarily.
Living the dream
Velasco still occasionally cooks for his mother and sister. He taught his sister how to make spinach rolls and ham, usually simple dishes made from whatever is in the fridge.
“Sometimes she’s helped me cook in the kitchen,” Gustavo said of his younger sister, Karla Torres. “She doesn’t like it as much, but I tell her it’s a good skill to have under your belt. If it comes down to it, you would know what to do.”
Torres described her brother as talented and a lifesaver, especially since he inherited the “cooking gene.”
“He always talks about how he loves cooking because it brings family together,” she said. “We came here for a better life and that’s very difficult, and I’m happy to see he’s achieving the life that he wanted.”
Velasco was always excited to show his mother what he could cook. His mother would come home from work hungry, and he would have something ready for her.
“I think she’s pretty proud of me,” Velasco said of his mom, Lourdes, who now lives in Sparks. “I tell her I love her. We’re open in that kind of sense of things. We’ve written each other a couple of letters, just saying how we feel about each other. We are proud of each other and what we’ve accomplished.”
Lourdes also loves to cook – a trait she believes she passed on to her son. She recalled a time when her son told her he wanted to study in the U.S. She never imagined he would grow up to be a chef.
“Right now, he has me so impressed,” she said. “I tell him, ‘Son, when I grow up, I want to be just like you.'”
Marcella Corona is a reporter covering local underrepresented communities in Northern Nevada.