MIAMI, Florida — Jessica Sanchez, the woman behind Miami's popular Loba restaurant, was on the path followed by so many first-generation Americans. Born to Colombian parents in Miami, Florida, she'd grown up helping in her parent's successful restaurant chain, Patacón.
"Growing up in a restaurant, especially a family-owned business in the 90s, I remember my parents coming from Colombia and telling me stories about how the United States was a place of opportunity. How the only way you're going to get places is hard work," remembers Jessica.
In college, Jessica pursued economics and an MBA which led to jobs in private banking and real estate. At the time, she thought what she had seen her mother do was not for her.
"I'm talking about 20 hours a day, standing, cooking, front of house, managing a restaurant. I didn't want that life for me or for my parents. I wanted to take - not the easy - but the stable, corporate, not risky route," said Jessica.
But though she was making it up the corporate ladder and it was a good living, it wasn't inspiring. She was drawn to the idea of opening her own restaurant.
Her mother Libia, all too aware of the demands of restaurant life, was hesitant — but only at first.
"My parents used to say, you can't hide from what's meant for you. It'll always come to you," explained Libia. "When I saw [Jessica] so enthused and invested in the project, well I thought I'd help her carry the bricks, tables, anything she needed."
Together they found a space in the emerging MiMo District of Miami that became Loba in 2014. The menu marries southern comfort food and Colombian cooking with pan-Latin touches.
Libia joined her daughter in the kitchen where her bandeja paisa, the patacones and her slate of famous secret sauces have become favorites. Jessica has given some dishes an American twist and some she's left the way her Mami made them.
"I was born and raised here — loving cheeseburgers and ribs and all this other stuff," said Jessica. "But my background is Colombian so I would incorporate some of the things that my mom would teach me into American cooking."
The name loba means she-wolf, and Libia says her fearless daughter's name choice makes sense.
Jessica's efforts have been well received. She made Zagat's 30 under 30 list in Loba's opening year, and went on to become the first chef/host of Zagat Video's Foodways, a popular web series exploring the intersection between food and culture.
"It's really important to embrace your culture and to know more," says Jessica. "I'm done with trying to make something that's not me. We've been open for two years and I think that's a testament to stand true and to just be who you are."
Her mother Libia is all in now. "I'm behind the she-wolf, watching as she goes on the right path, as far as she can go," she said. "If one day I'm not here, I know that all of my children will be — including her as the leader —walking confidently, wherever they're going."