Getting to Know the Heart of… Pepe Herra-Matta
“I love what I do and when you love what you do, you can touch anything you want in this country but the sky.” – Jose-Luis “Pepe” Herra-Matta
By: Annice Moses, Council for Inclusion and Community Member
I interviewed Pepe because a dear friend of mine told me I absolutely had to. “He always remembered my mom’s name. He made her feel special.” Considering I often call my children by one of the dog’s monikers, I was already impressed. Every time I told someone who I was interviewing next, they’d exclaim, “PEPE!” followed by very kind words and heartfelt accolades. I came to understand that Pepe is like the very sophisticated Glencoe equivalent to Norm on Cheers. Everybody knows his name. But after talking with him for 5 ½ hours and listening intently to what I know is a very condensed portion of his incredible life story, I wondered how many people truly know Pepe.
Married 30 years to his wife Olga and proud father of two sons, -- Jose 27, a graduate of Kendall Culinary College in service management and a sommelier, and Luis 23, an engineer and computer whiz who works in IT -- Pepe was born and raised in Guerrero, Mexico on his family farm. His parents, while devoted to the farm, also encouraged their four children to develop independent passions and interests and attend college. Pepe studied Psychology, became fluent in sign language, and piloted a school program for gifted children. He then pivoted to working with youth who were profoundly visually and auditorily impaired, providing psychological testing and individualized curriculum recommendations for each student. Pepe worked in this field for 12 years.
In the late 1980’s, the Mexican farming community faced an economic crisis. Pepe’s father, brother and sister headed to the states in search of work to save the family farm from bankruptcy, while Pepe, his mother and brother stayed in Mexico. After six months, only his sister Norma was able find minimal employment -- five hours a day at a Wendy’s. Their continuing struggle prompted a 28-year-old Pepe to leave the stability and security of his job in Mexico to join them in America. Pepe arrived determined but speaking very little English. He remembers walking into the le Madeleine French Bakery and Café, finding the manager and saying, “help” and “work.” These two words and an earnest face got Pepe a job as a busboy. It also got his father a job as a dishwasher, his brother a job prepping food and his sister a job as a cashier. He was teased by his co-workers for bussing tables after having held such a prestigious job in Mexico. Pepe reflects on this period philosophically. “There is dignity in an honest job. Integrity opens doors.”
Pepe’s family spent 3 years pooling their minimum wage earnings until they had enough money to bail the family farm out of bankruptcy. Pepe’s father and brother decided to return to Mexico. Pepe contemplated returning as well – he still had a spot at his school. But Pepe now saw an opportunity for himself here: It was a vision he could only contemplate once he knew the family farm would survive. In the end, Pepe and his sister made the choice to stay in America.
When the bakery eventually went out of business, Pepe spotted a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of at Giordano’s, an Italian eatery in Wheeling, and was hired as a dishwasher. Unbeknownst to the Italian owners, Pepe spoke his fair share of their language. Surprised, they asked if he was Italian or Mexican. Pepe replied, “I’m Mexican and I speak Italian.” They told Pepe he didn’t belong washing dishes, he belonged on the floor -- but first, he needed to learn English. Sensing Pepe’s potential, the owners offered to pay for six months of language classes. Pepe agreed, attending class during the day, and working very late nights. Six months later, the owner called over the current manager and said, “Give Pepe your keys. He’s our new manager and maître de.” For the next three years Pepe worked full time, while continuing to take English classes at the College of Lake County. Pepe’s story and proficiency progress was so inspirational that he was asked to make a video, encouraging other ESL students who were just starting out. The video is titled, “You Can Do It”, and is still shown in CLC classrooms to this day.
When Giordano’s closed, Michael Kornick opened MK North in Northfield where Pepe was a waiter for five years. This location is exactly where the Happ Inn resides today and is precisely where Pepe has asked me to meet him for our interview. As soon as we sit down, nestled into our cozy corner booth, Pepe beams, his eyes shiny as nostalgia begins to flood him. “That’s where the bar used to be… One night I sold over 20 bottles of wine… I served Richard Gere at that table…”.
MK North is where Pepe began to hone his food and wine expertise. There he learned it’s not enough to simply memorize a menu. “For instance…” Pepe begins, “let’s take the dish of beef wellington…” Being vegetarian, this is nothing I would normally pay attention to. However, Pepe is not simply reciting a recipe -- Pepe is telling me a story. “Make a poem out of the meal.” Pepe says. “Make the food more than food -- make it an experience! When someone orders a glass of champagne, I don’t just go and get it. I say ‘Ah! You want to drink in the stars tonight!’”
When MK North shuttered its doors, Pepe started working days at Neiman Marcus’ restaurant in Northbrook, nights at the now closed Lovells of Lake Forest. (Sensing a theme here? The restaurant business is notoriously tough. But fun fact! Lovells was owned by astronaut James Arthur Lovell, Jr.) Lovells provided lots of celebrity sightings – Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston, Ron Howard… but the biggest attraction for Pepe was elevating his food, wine and service repertoire. When an opportunity arose for Pepe to work at a Le Titi Paris, a French restaurant in Arlington Heights, he left Lovells and took the job. Everyone was French at Le Titi Paris and Pepe was treated like an outsider. Initially, the service staff gave him a hard time, laughed at him and asked in front of him, “What’s this Mexican guy doing here? What’s he know?” Then customers from his former restaurants started coming in and saying, “Pepe! Are you working here? That’s wonderful! So glad to see you!” That recognition gave him all the service cred he needed. Additionally, Pepe gave his co-workers quite a list of what he did know: a history lesson on Alexander Dumas’ African ancestry, wine grape varieties, tasting profiles and the difference between champagne bubbles and crémant bubbles. Touché!
One day a friend came into Neiman Marcus to celebrate her birthday. She told Pepe about a new restaurant that was opening that coming Monday in downtown Glencoe. That very Tuesday -- eight years ago in March -- Pepe was hired full time at Guildhall. Shortly thereafter, his beloved sister Norma joined him. “My sister is a very organized and terrific waitress. If I’m thinking a plate needs to be moved, my sister has already moved it. Norma’s putting her daughter though school at Northwestern University. My sister is amazing.”
Pepe has been offered managerial positions in the past, but he loves being on the floor and caring for what he calls, his people. “I don’t own the businesses, but the tables I take care of are my tables. That’s my business. You treat everyone like royalty, you use proper adjectives, you recognize people, you acknowledge them… and if you do it right, it’s a demanding job.” But to Pepe it’s all worth it. He is absolutely in love with working in Glencoe. People are kind, welcoming and warm he says, but Pepe has also faced discrimination here. He recounts being told by a customer, “You are a wonderful waiter, but we still need to build that border wall.” He shakes his head. “Why would someone say this to me?”
In his thin sliver of free time, Pepe tends to his vegetable garden, goes to museums and is a vivacious reader. But work is his priority. Pepe recognizes he has sacrificed a lot of family time to work, but he knows this gives his children the opportunity to be in a better position down the road than he was early on. Pepe mentions again and again his gratitude for all the opportunity and support he’s experienced along the way. I ask him what he plans to do when he stops working. He pulls out his phone and shows me a video of a beautiful house with yellow gold curtains billowing in a tropical wind, a colorful Mexican tiled stairway, a kidney shaped pool… it looks like something straight out of MTV cribs. “Your dreamhouse!” I exclaim. The place is breathtaking. Pepe smiles. “No. This is my home in Cancun. This is where I will retire.” It is aptly named, “Villa los Pepes” -- the House of Pepe.
Pepe has hurdled many an obstacle in his lifetime, and demonstrated Herculean-like determination in the process, but despite all that, we still need to ask the hard-hitting questions:
Would Pepe survive a Zombie apocalypse? “This would be very tough for my personality. I wouldn’t want to hurt them.”
Celebrity crush? “George Seurat. Painting with dots is incredible -- pointillism. You must have a lot of creativity and imagination. His talent! I am in awe!”
Do you know someone in Glencoe we should know? Send us an email at email@example.com