Since opening New Rebozo in 1991, chef and owner, Francisco Lopez, known to all as Chef Paco has been evolving with the times. The innovative chef is constantly making subtle improvements to make the most of his passion driven restaurant at 1116 Madison St. Now, 30 years later Chef Paco remains full of charisma and blurts out his “oh my god” catchphrase when he greets the loyal customers he credits with making New Rebozo an Oak Park mainstay for three decades.
“Paco alone is not New Rebozo,” said the chef. “This restaurant is part of the community. My family, my staff and my customers — oh my god, they are what make New Rebozo special.”
The establishment, known for serving an arsenal of 26 different moles, has powered through a pandemic that has left little room for big celebrations. New Rebozo has been celebrating in small ways all year long and Chef Paco eagerly showed off a set of poster boards depicting New Rebozo’s timeline. They mark the restaurant’s milestones against notable moments in history. For example, the restaurant opened before the first Harry Potter book was published and before the internet was available to businesses but shows that he attended culinary school after all three of those milestones.
Chef Paco had a career in banking in Mexico before coming to the United States. He was in the states to learn English and took over El Rebozo in 1991. Language, though, wasn’t his barrier. The first-time restaurant owner didn’t know how to cook.
“I kept ‘Rebozo’ because they told me it was famous, but then I realized El Rebozo was famous for being terrible,” said Chef Paco laughing. “But my family taught me how to cook and we started to make New Rebozo better.”
With the help of his wife, Chef Paco added mole poblano to the menu, but beyond offering the first of what would become many future moles, New Rebozo’s early dishes focused classic homestyle fare like tacos and burritos. Eight years into the endeavor, however, Chef Paco began to think there could be value in adding a fine dining twist to his restaurant. He set his sights on culinary school and applied to the now defunct Illinois Institute of Art.
“I read and spoke very little English and I had to take the entrance test,” said Chef Paco. “Oh my god, I guessed my way through the whole test and thought I had failed, but I turned out to be a good guesser because I passed.”
Chef Paco struggled in his academic classes and recollected “feeling stupid” most of the time, but his chef-instructors saw his potential and encouraged him to fight through the language barrier because he was a “good example” to the younger aspiring chefs in the program. When homework started to become too difficult for him to complete on his own, Chef Paco didn’t hire a tutor, but turned to his regular customers.
“Oh my god, my customers would help me with the grammar in my papers and help me understand difficult math,” said Chef Paco. “They would come for dinner and stay late to help me learn. I worked hard, but it still took me four years to finish a two-year program. I could not have done it without them.”
Now, 30 years into his restaurant adventure, Chef Paco’s perseverance has helped transform his restaurant into a local fine dining legacy. He elevated his cuisine to focus on regional specialties and artful plating while continually expanding his collection of colorful Oaxacan art giving the restaurant its own brand of elegance. The restaurant has endured temporary closures, remodeling projects and a global pandemic. His evolution as a chef earned him regular cooking segments on Univision and Telemundo and features on Chicago’s Best and Check Please.
According to Chef Paco restaurant ownership comes with “the good and the bad,” but his kitchen philosophy doubles as a philosophy for life.
“Spicy, sweet, sour, salty, crunchy — you need them all, in a dish and in life,” said Paco. “Too much of one thing and everything will be out of balance. I have found my balance at New Rebozo.”
The timeline posters marking the restaurant’s milestone anniversary are covered with congratulatory messages from his devoted customers saying things like “Chef Paco, always present, always kind, always great,” “and “our family has loved you and your food for all 30 years.”
Chef says the restaurant has helped him “learn to feel loved” and when asked what is in store for the next 30 years he laughed and said, “In 30 years I will be 95 years old so it will probably be the same.” Though he doesn’t own the Madison Street building, he hopes to remain in the same location for years to come.
“New Rebozo gives me energy and, oh my god, I forget all my problems when I see smiles on my customers’ faces,” said Chef Paco.