There's not much to say. I've retired," says Bea Gonzalez of her life after Lupe & Bea's, the storied Tex-Mex/Cuban restaurant at 394 N. Watkins, which closed its doors for good in 1996. "I have a few customers still," she says. "They still ask me for my services, so I do a little catering once in a while. I would do more."
And she has done more, if only by accident. Her first cookbook, a slender volume focusing on "party favorites," was a surprise gift. Her son, Rey Gonzalez, a quality control worker at a nuclear plant in Sugarland, Texas, delivered it to her for Christmas.
"My son had been begging me for all my recipes, and I had taken my own sweet time sending them to him," she says. It wasn't that she wanted to deprive her son of mama's enchiladas. The fact is, she didn't know the recipes. There was no paper trail, no little set of index cards neatly arranged in alphabetical order. For Bea, it was all about instinct.
"Many of these are [recipes] I've invented," she says. "It was always a handful of this, a little more of that. Till you get it right. And you just do it. You make it."
"I gave my son a recipe for enchilada gravy," Bea says. "He calls and says to me, 'Mama, do I really have to make this much?' Because the amount that I made was for 50 enchiladas, not for just a family. But that same gravy is for chicken or beef or turkey. It's for any kind of enchilada. So you make it and freeze it. When you want another kind of enchilada, you take it out and use it. Oh, my husband. He used to get angry because I would make so much food, and he'd say, 'Why do you have to make so much food?' I don't know."
Of course, Bea Gonzalez the accidental author was also the accidental chef. Everything she did, to hear her tell it, was all someone else's idea.
Her unofficial culinary career began shortly after moving from her parents' home in Texas to the port city of Tampico, Mexico. "I've cooked since I was 7 years old," she says. "I was an orphan with five brothers and I lived with my aunt. But I had to cook a lot. Five brothers! But this food I was cooking, it was nothing special," she says. "It was mostly the same things every day. Beans and rice. Maybe a steak. There was not much variety."
When Bea moved to Memphis in the 1970s, she joined First Baptist Church. "They had a secretary there then named Mr. Love," Bea says. "And he said, 'Don't you want to work, Bea?' And I said, well, yes, but my husband doesn't want me to work. So he said, 'I'll talk to Lupe.'" After a short talk with Lupe, Bea was working as a waitress, first at the Knickerbocker, then at John Grisanti's. Then that same wonderful man, Mr. Love, asked, "Bea, don't you want to have your own restaurant?"
In 1983, Lupe & Bea's opened its doors. Hung top to bottom with Mexican marionettes and featuring not only Tex-Mex but also Cuban food (unheard-of in Memphis at the time), it quickly became the stuff of Midtown legend.
"Z Z Top loved to eat the vegetarian food," she says of the bearded ones who used to thank Lupe and Bea in the liner notes of their records. "Stevie Ray Vaughan came all the time before he died in the crash," Bea says. "He came to my restaurant every time he hit town."
Esteban Nodal, the Cuban chef responsible for much of the restaurant's distinctive flavor, just showed up on Bea's doorstep one day looking for work. She tried to send him away.
"Just before I was about to open, a friend brought me this Cuban person," Bea says. "The man said he was looking for work and I said, no, I can't afford to pay anybody. I can't afford to pay myself. But he begged me, 'Oh please just give me a chance. Give me two weeks to work for you and don't pay me -- just so I can show you what I can do.'"
So, in exchange for his two weeks of service, Bea offered Esteban an empty apartment in the back of her home. It was an apartment that Bea, nicknamed "Honey Bea" by her friends in the Cuban community, often offered free of charge to Cuban immigrants trying to get established in Memphis. Esteban still lives there today.
Lupe and Bea's Tex-Mex Cookbook may come as a big disappointment for overexcitable fans who remember well and are hoping to learn the secrets of the restaurant's savory paella. None of that is covered, but Bea promises that this unexpected book is only an appetizer. There are more and more detailed cookbooks on the way. "My son," she says, "he has been pressuring me for more and more recipes. The Cuban cookbook will be much fatter."