Nothing in Garcia’s quest to achieve harmony with nature and the nourishment it provides comes easily.
BY MICHAEL SOMERBY
PHOTOS BY KENE SPERRY
An armada of raspberry bush thorns bury themselves into the flesh of Chef Eduardo Garcia’s arm. It’s a grey, mid-September afternoon in Gallatin Gateway, Montana, and the chef is tending his permaculture garden. He uses his right forearm, bare from rolled flannel sleeves, to push back the overgrown tendrils of the massive fruit bush. The thorns leave white and pink scratches from wrist to elbow. He doesn’t notice.
The act seems illogical: Garcia’s prosthetic-capped left arm would effectively prevent the plant-borne wounds. But get to know him and you realize it’s right on brand.
“I just get in there. You might get a little scratched up but that’s what Mother Nature’s all about,” says Garcia, CEO of Montana Mex, a savory and unique seasonings, spices and cooking oils company he started with members of his family and close friends back in 2010. “The harder you work toward something, the sweeter the reward. I’m just a little bit of a masochist for that type of stuff.”
Nothing in Garcia’s quest to achieve harmony with nature and the nourishment it provides comes easily. Take his permaculture garden, a one-acre plot of earth that is a plain beast to manage—even for someone with two working hands.
Driving his shovel into a potato patch packed hard with rain and near-frosts, his right hand and the two anterior prongs of his prosthetic align the handle into position as his foot provides the oomph to break apart the soil. He stoops, snapping apart the clumps of earth to reveal purple and red and golden potatoes, tossing them into a bucket for the evening’s meal.
“It’s like mining,” Garcia says. Looking at his left arm clad in plastic, nylon cord and metal he adds, “Sometimes, and only barely, it makes [cooking] cool, but more often than not it’s like, ‘Damn I wish I had my hand back.’ You know what I mean? But I don’t ever find myself losing sleep over it.”
To contend that the 2011 accident that nearly claimed Garcia’s life was the sole facilitator of his intimate connection to the landscapes of the Greater Yellowstone, the regal creatures that roam it and the fruits it bares is to romanticize the incident and the man left in its wake—he earned his admiration through a lifetime of hunting, fishing, foraging and exploring those wilds.
“Out there in the rolling hills, deep forests and steep craggy faces I see a multivitamin of sorts,” Garcia wrote on a #PublicLandsMonth Instagram post last September. “A timeless equation ripe with complete mind, body and soul nutrition … Out there in the dirt and the wind exists a magic, a secret sauce for our spirit. A comfort food that at every step and every bite feels innately like going home.”
It’s impossible to ignore that Garcia, an avid outdoorsman, is also a chef, a profession requiring ample dexterity. The story behind the prosthetic arm doesn’t merely lend weight to his world-class abilities. It adds to the richness of his person.
More than eight years ago, during a solo bow-hunting expedition in the Paradise Valley of southwest Montana, Garcia spotted dead bear in a drainage. Prodding a paw with a hunting knife in hopes of prying off a claw, 2,400 volts of electricity coursed through his body: The bear had become entangled in the wiring of a neglected electrical junction box, which destroyed the bear before nearly killing Garcia, too.
Two thousand, four hundred volts. As low as 42 volts have been known to kill a human.
He was a “bag of bones with a heartbeat,” according to the doctor on call at the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake City, where a then-31-year-old Garcia was airlifted after willing his way on foot back to safety.
Infection in the damaged tissue of his left hand required an amputation to keep it from spreading to his heart. He would spend 50 days in the center’s intensive care unit and endure 21 surgeries over the following two years.
For Garcia, dubbed the “Bionic Chef,” a man who remains impressively grounded despite a steadily growing celebrity since the accident, every moment of toil that goes into a mundane potato harvest is celebrated. They become cherished pieces in a story essential to dish those potatoes, and include using a prosthetic to dig them up.
That part of the potatoes’ story is relatively unimportant for Garcia. The bits that are, however, include the folks behind every note of flavor on every plate he serves up hot from a bed of coals or cast iron skillet.
It’s about a connection to those flavors that goes beyond simply tasting them; it’s about establishing a community through the power of food.
“I call it a ‘Weed and Feed,’ inviting folks to come out for a breakfast or a lunch or a dinner, and having there be some kind of work to be done beforehand,” Garcia says. “You’re connecting over shared goals, you’re connecting over food. There’s now a shared story and something added to that garlic you harvested and cleaned a month earlier.”
Garcia wants you to remember the driving rain that backdropped planting the bulbs, the cold winds that cut through jackets during harvest—never the woes of navigating the busy aisles of a grocery mart, or the afternoon traffic endured to get there. The effort is always worth it.
“Once the work is done, I don’t overthink it. I’ll open up a good bottle of wine or bourbon, grill some burgers and invite some homies over to eat and help clean it all up.”
The legacy of togetherness through harvest—food as a whole—carries over from his youth when he worked the fields of the Church Universal and Triumphant in the Paradise Valley after moving there at 5 years old with his older sister, twin brother and mother from his first home in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles.
The church operated as any other, Garcia says, only they derived much of their spirituality from a “huge fricking property” where the congregation worked the land and animals together.
Yet, Garcia was no altar boy. At age 11, he was shoplifting cigarettes and pilfering beers, earning his first ride in the back of a cop car at 12. By 14, he was smoking pot and by 15 had dabbled in psychedelics, cocaine and speed.
“I always lived in a house full of love, but one mom trying to do it all is naturally outnumbered by the kids,” says Garcia, stripping fragrant leaves from fresh sprigs of lemon thyme in his home’s rustic brick and stucco kitchen. “So at a certain point there was just opportunity to fall into the cracks, to seek whatever was missing.”
One obvious absent presence was that of a father; Garcia’s mother and father had separated when he was but a few months old, and the future chef wouldn’t meet his dad until he was 13 years old. Only later in their lives would “Papi” become a major source of inspiration, straddling the line of role model and cherished friend.
Another was that of purpose, of vocation.
Cooking played a large part in his deliverance after he landed a job in the Chico Hot Springs kitchen at 15. It was an experience he calls “ground zero,” where he stood on the precipice of delinquency and a life made complete through food.
“I always lived in a house full of love, but one mom trying to do it all is naturally outnumbered by the kids.”
A few hours have passed since Garcia pushed the raspberry bush back into order, and a select group of kids from Big Sky Youth Empowerment, the Bozeman-based social service for at-risk teens, pours out of cars in Garcia’s driveway. They’ve arrived for the third installation of a three-part workshop, sponsored by Montana Mex, that taught them how to plant, tend, harvest and cook produce.
The chef welcomes them, parents and organizers in tow, with bear hugs and words of friendship.
As the teenagers amble through the garden, nibbling on bits of herbs, fruits and vegetables in the Eden-like jumble of produce, Garcia stokes the coals and assembles the last pieces of the evening’s meal: watermelon with mint, lime and chili seasoning, barbecue chicken, Mexican street-style corn, potato salad and a cast-iron-baked strawberry rhubarb pie.
The kids rotate duties, some flipping ears of corn and chicken breasts, some plucking the dry skin from garlic bulbs—others skirt duties altogether for more time among the raspberry bushes, asparagus stalks and apple trees.
“I have no interest in just trying to run a business for profit or success in any stereotypical sense,” he says peeling back the charred cornhusks. “I have the ability to see myself in these kids. What would I have done without food coming into my life, without purpose?”
To some, Garcia’s life seems a bounty, traveling around the globe and starring in sponsored cooking, hunting and foraging videos that have racked up millions of views on YouTube and other platforms. But Lanai, the southern reaches Yucatan Peninsula, and even the Texas portion of the Gulf of Mexico are far from home in Montana, far from evenings spent harvesting and cooking meals with friends, family and those that need his spirit most.
“I feel like I say yes to too many things and it ends up diluting my ability to turn a bright light on in the room that I really want to be in,” Garcia says. “I end up shining dull lights in lots of places.”
Yet, on this September evening, his hazel eyes alight watching the kids bounce through the vegetation. It’s easy to see that for Garcia, this is a story worth more than concerns of tomorrow.
“I’m proud to be working, right now, for this.”
Michael Somerby is a Staff Writer and the Digital Editor for Mountain Outlaw magazine.