On Zarela's Mind: Reinvention and Saint Jude Thaddeus

One time someone asked renowned graphic artist Milton Glaser if he had known me long. His response: “Known her long? I watched her invent herself.”

When I arrived in New York in 1983, I told myself that from that moment on I would shed everything I hated about myself, primarily my lifelong insecurity and the shyness I felt when interacting with people so different from myself. And I did it. 

Now, at 63, I have reached most of my goals, but my recently-closed restaurant, Zarela, took too much of the money I had set aside so that I could live in the style to which I have been accustomed when and if I ever retire. (This is divorce lingo, but closing the restaurant was a kind of divorce.) In any case, it won’t be now. I have too many things I want to accomplish. But inventing yourself at age 33 is very different from reinventing yourself 30 years later.

I got here in 1983 and was basically the only game in town as far as quality Mexican cuisine. I opened with only $20,000 in working capital. The restaurant business has changed much since then and the failing economy, unemployment and rent-poor customers have made restaurants fall like Fleet once killed flies.

This situation requires drastic action in many cases. In Mexico, you would immediately call on Saint Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of desperate causes. During my college years in Guadalajara, my boyfriend Ricardo made me walk on my knees from the door to the altar carrying flowers to the Virgin of Zapopan so he could pass his exams. (He did.) At the ranch my mother had us walk up the hill to a wooden cross and pray the rosary. My New York family and friends are multi-faith, so my Buddhist son Aaron and his wife Ife are chanting the bad karma away. I wish we could sacrifice a lamb like the Jews and Muslims used to do, but alas we have to live in the digital age and only a great credit report can make a new restaurant happen.

Or you can reinvent yourself.

I have many interests and there are many opportunities if I am willing to work hard and push myself. But every day I miss the restaurant more. I don’t know what to do with myself around 6 p.m., when I would ordinarily go there. Sometimes I still want to call the hostesses to check how many covers we did. I still haven’t walked by the place I called home for 23 years, and I am trying to learn how to enjoy my evenings off. I miss socializing and will have an open house for my friends one night a week. I hope that I can indeed open a new restaurant, to be called Zarela's Salon, soon.

In the meantime, I will teach and develop my catering business (we have several parties already lined up) and I’ll finish getting my archive together to put it up for sale. My daughter Marissa and I will throw ourselves back into our popular cultural program, Food is Art. I will continue testing recipes for my book on naturally light Mexican food. And I’ll keep up my website,

Would I call this reinventing myself or simply finishing projects I didn’t have time to do when Zarela was open. I might be working harder during my supposed break than I did before. But by the time we reopen, I’ll be rejuvenated, I’ll look and feel like a million bucks because hey, you never know.

Award-winning restaurateur Zarela Martinez blogs at You can also check out her how-to videos on YouTube.

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