Born and raised in South Texas, Chef Dayna Lee-Márquez moved to the Upstate when her husband, a mechanical engineer, landed a job in Piedmont. She began cooking as a way to teach her son about his Mexican heritage.
Now she’s a 2023 James Beard semifinalist in the Best Chef: Southeast category.
A few other things happened between cooking for her son and earning this recognition, like opening Comal 864 on Woodside Avenue after gaining a following through pop-ups at local breweries.
We asked Chef Dayna six questions — just hours after the list was released — about the recognition and how she went from working a desk job downtown to becoming a James Beard semifinalist.
How did you find out the news and how are you feeling?
I found out when it went out on social media. I was getting a pedicure and a food blogger sent me a message saying, “I’m so excited for you.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” They sent me a screenshot and I thought, “They must’ve been hacked. This is not real.” I’ve been broken down ever since.
Is this moment something you pictured when you became a chef?
I put anything food-related on my TV to manifest this for one day down the road. In five years, ten years... James Beard. That’s when I thought it could happen.
I come from a place where you grow up on rice and beans and you think, “Maybe one day.” You never think it could really happen. I always thought I had to be X, Y, and Z to be a part of that group, and that’s not me. I am Latina-owned, woman-owned, queer-owned. How is this happening?
How did you get to where you are today?
I grew up making tortillas and tamales with my grandmother, and since no family followed us here when we moved in 2016, I knew if I didn’t keep this food culture alive my son would have none of it. By keeping the food alive, that keeps him immersed.
I fight every day to be Latina. If I didn’t tell you Spanish was my first language, you wouldn’t know. I fight every single day to show you don’t have to be super dark or super white. Latina is Latina, and I am very proud of my Latina culture.
My biological dad, who I never really had much communication with, passed away and left me $1,100. I used that to get my permit and my few basics and I started selling breakfast tacos at The Whale.
I sold two or three tacos at my first pop-up and I was so excited. I would say, “Three tacos this week, six tacos next week.” I started expanding to Tetrad, Fireforge, and other local breweries. I expanded my menu with enchiladas, quesadillas, more tacos. People started to show up all the time and I thought, “This could really be something.”
We opened this location in November 2021, and this has been the most heartbreaking and heartwarming, character-building and character-breaking thing I’ve ever done.
What inspires you to give back to your community?
I’m just trying to be good to the people who are around me and have a lot less than I do. I was less than one life choice away from being somebody who needed to come in here and ask for food.
I like serving people and food, for me, is the easiest way to serve somebody. Good, homemade food where you feel love and feel taken care of. Food is the quickest route to serving others, and I see the need around, so why would I not do that?
Describe your perfect day in Greenville.
I’d start with a coffee at Unlocked Coffee Roasters and then I’m going for a facial at Fortified Wellness Studio. I’d grab a snack from Empanadas y Salsas on Pendleton Street. If they’re not open: Phase II Express. Then I need a drink from either GB&D or Woodside Bistro. Then I’ll pick up my kid and we’ll go to Unity Park. Then I’d head to a stop at The Whale and oysters at Jianna. My end of night drinks will be at Vault & Vator with Carson, Jordan, and Andy.
Who are three Greenvillians you look up to?
Jesse Van Note, The Whale — He gave me my start. He’s my mentor who I go to for business advice.
Alex George, Golden Brown & Delicious — Chef-wise, I admire him so much because he’s never afraid to try something that’s a little weird or strange.
Tammy Johnson, High Spirits Hospitality — She’s a woman and she makes it happen. She has vision.
Notable mentions: ChristenEats and Ariel Turner. I look up to a lot of food writers. I love how they process food and talk about food. I can make you feel it when I present it to you, but I can’t give you those words.
What do you think Greenville will be known for in 10 years?
Food from other cultures, with fusion being a big factor of it. I think you’re going to see a lot more African and Caribbean fusions, which is what Greenville is missing. I’m excited to see more South American food from Venezuela and Colombia. There are so many ways we contribute to food and they’re all so different. I think you’ll see a lot more of that.