EL PASO, Texas (KTSM)- A former El Paso Community College (EPCC) Culinary Art student, Emiliano Marentes, is a finalist in this year’s James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards competition.

Marentes, who owns and is a chef at his restaurant Elemi in Downtown El Paso, has earned acclaim for his love of corn tortillas and how to prepare them in traditional methods. His interest began as a kid when he used to cook alongside his parents in the family kitchen. The interest continued with the job he had right after high school, delivering tortillas to restaurants around El Paso.

While having the delivery job, Marentes met Chef Jesus Lugo, an owner of one of the restaurants he would deliver tortillas to. Chef Lugo remembers that Marentes was always polite and inquisitive, trying to learn as much as he could.

Later on, the two crossed paths again when Marentes enrolled in the EPCC Culinary Arts program, where Chef Lugo, a certified executive chef and certified pastry chef, is now an instructor and program coordinator.  

Emiliano enrolled at EPCC to strengthen his culinary techniques and explore the French fundamentals of cooking. From his very first days, his teachability, work ethic and desire to learn always stood up.

“Emiliano knew he wanted to express himself through food and had the drive and resolve to get it done. He jumped at the opportunity to come to school and provide a better foundation for himself,” Chef Lugo said.

EPCC”s culinary program offers associate degrees and certificates of completion in a variety of areas which prepare students for successful careers in culinary arts, pastry and restaurant management.

EPCC is also nationally recognized for having students and graduates who are competitive with alumni from the most prestigious schools, Marentes being a clear example of what EPCC students can accomplish.

“I appreciated the connection we had with our instructors here at EPCC,” Marentes said.

Dean Daniel Guerra, who was a faculty member in the culinary program while Marentes was in school, remembers how hard Marentes worked while in the program.

“Emiliano was always willing to participate—cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, sweeping, mopping, and whatever else was needed. He was the first one to class and the last one out. He was a sous chef at the time, and he did not think he was above any of it. I counted on him as my sous chef,” Guerra said. “He would lead his classmates by example.”

After EPCC, Marentes continued working at restaurants in El Paso and San Antonio. He moved back to the Borderland, and in 2019, he opened Elemi with his wife Kristal.

At his restaurant, he shares his belief in simple ingredients, maiz and tortillas, with the world. Marentes’ restaurant is a return to his roots that is inspired by local culture and the agriculture of the Rio Grande. 

“His success is rooted in focusing on Mexican culture. He takes the most rudimentary ingredients and makes them shine,” Chef Lugo said. “Emiliano’s integrity stands out. It’s not about the hype or being pretentious. It’s about making something that’s already beautiful stand out more.”  

Just as Marentes wants to highlight local ingredients and traditional cooking methods, EPCC’s mission is to provide quality, affordable education to individuals in the region. Both are about access and helping the beautiful aspects of our culture shine.

“EPCC offers the community what it needs,” Marentes said. “We want to eat this food here in our community. One of my major goals is for our youth to WANT to stay in El Paso.” 

Dean Rick Webb, who led the culinary program when Marentes was a student, believes it’s this commitment to the El Paso community that has helped Marentes achieve recognition.

Webb says that El Paso and EPCC’s program have a strong presence on the national stage due to student success. 

“I continue to be very proud of Emi and his accomplishments—they are a continuation of his dedication and commitment to our industry and to the city and region of El Paso and our customers. I am very proud of him,” Webb said.  

Former EPCC culinary program students like Marentes are part of the reason it has a reputation beyond the region, with companies in California and Alaska recruiting EPCC culinary graduates.

“You can attend the most prestigious culinary school in the world or learn at your local community college, will it matter or change who you are? I believe being your best self everyday will help you grow professionally and in your personal life,” Marentes said. “I am always growing and looking inward. It’s not about the finish line for me. It’s about enjoying the journey as much as possible.” 

To learn more about EPCC’s Culinary Arts Program click here