#NBCLatino20: Cristina Martinez — Chef with a mission

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By Carmen Sesin

Her mouth-watering, slow-cooked lamb "barbacoa" has catapulted Cristina Martinez into culinary elite status.

Martínez has achieved national fame for her Mexican-style barbecue restaurant she in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania called South Philly Barbacoa.

In the ten years since she arrived from Mexico — she's from Capulhuac — Martínez has been featured in the fifth season of the award-winning documentary series "Chef’s Table" on Netflix and was a 2019 finalist for the James Beard Award, the food world's most prestigious American prize. Martinez was also nominated for the Basque Culinary World Prize in 2019.

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Cristina Martinez.Illustration by Aaron Fernandez for NBC News

In 2016, Bon Appetit magazine ranked her restaurant number 6 on a list of 10 best new restaurants.

But her personal story has also resonated nationally and shed light on one of the realities of the food industry — many of those who work in the nation's restaurants are immigrants, and like Martinez, some of these workers are undocumented.

Martinez has told her story of leaving Mexico to pursue more opportunities for her daughter; she fled an abusive husband she had married at 17, crossed the desert into the U.S. and was fired from a restaurant where she worked because she didn't have legal papers.

South Philly Barbacoa serves barbecued lamb, pancitas, and consome on weekends and Mondays. The tortillas are made with corn from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

But aside from cooking succulent dishes, Martinez and her husband Ben Miller host food events with other chefs and organizations to advocate for restaurant workers and trying to find ways to connect them to legal experts or other resources.

“What motivates me is to leave a legacy. We need to learn to educate people and set an example,” Martínez said.

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