Words by Leigh Patterson
Photographs Justin Chung

April Valencia

Los Angeles, CA

April Valencia
Creator of Masa Memory, Artist, Chef
Los Angeles, CA

Sometimes the most powerful creative canvas comes in a highly unexpected form. For chef and artist April Valencia, a tortilla is more than the sum of its humble ingredients. Rather, it can be a metaphor for cooking as a love language, a keeper of generational wisdom, and a medium for exchanging stories.
From her rustic, cherry red cabin at the peak of the mythos-filled hills of Laurel Canyon, April lives and operates a business called Masa Memory, an evolving kitchen ethic founded on passed-down food traditions. More than anything, Masa Memory stands out as something only April could have created, a pure blueprint of learnings that have come from a life of asking questions about her own identity, and what it can look like to be in contemporary conversation with our ancestry.
Growing up in Arizona, April was raised by an Irish mother and Spanish-Mexican father in a large, multicultural household. The kitchen was the familial focal point. She vividly recalls watching her grandmother and network of matriarchs gather around the stove, all speaking the same shared language of generational intuition as they added a pinch of this and that to boiling pots of caldo. There was a specific side-eyed nod when it was April’s turn to pull up a seat and roll out the masa for making tamales; its own kind of passage into the collective sense memory. The awe was also underwritten in a subtle displacement. “I grew up feeling like I was never quite Mexican enough…or quite Irish enough. I’d be eating dinner with my Irish family, asking, ‘Can we get some hot sauce over here for the potatoes?’ I didn't know which cultural identity I could take on as my own, and in retrospect I realize this is a question I’ve been trying to understand and answer my whole life.”
Living in New York through her twenties, April worked in kitchens while assisting food photographers, tasked with the role of elevating the aesthetic of taste to an art form. This duality prompted a first ah-ha moment; food could be used as a communicative tool. After leaving New York, she traveled the world for the next half decade, bouncing between living on boats, taking photos, and letting intuition lead the way. In 2019, she moved to Los Angeles. There, she started spending her free time exploring California’s seasonal abundance of farm stands and Mexican markets, indulging the nostalgic pull back to the ingredients from her childhood. In the kitchen she found the same comforting catalyst for creativity and connection she recalled as a kid. She catapulted into a constant cycle of business, working nonstop as a chef for events and private clients until life once again threw a curve with the onset of the pandemic. With newfound idle time on her hands, April started revisiting the recipes and inherited techniques she’d learned from her family and her travels through Mexico: the tortillas, the molés, the salsas, and deliciously spicy tamales, all infused with the nourishment of care. She started sharing photos, first of her tortillas — beautiful soft pink and sky blue hand-shaped discs of maize, embellished with pressed sage, nasturtium, and violas. Each pays artful homage to the Mexican tradition of garnishing quesadillas and tamales with edible flowers. The requests flooded in. Suddenly, April found herself directing a winding line of cars down the canyon, all with customers — some of whom had driven for hours — to pick up tortillas and mole and salsa. “I had never been present for anything like that before,” she explains. “It made me realize that really we’re all just craving connection and beauty.”
Over the last couple years, Masa Memory has expanded beyond tortillas but is ever-evolving. When we made our visit, her kitchen was filled with tamales carefully wrapped in banana leaves; the ingredients for mushroom and mole tetelas; test batches of a vinegary salsa made from comal-roasted morita peppers. Working closely with Mexican farmers across the Yucatan—many coming from generations of farming lineage — April has become an active and vocal partner in advocating for healthy soil and sustainable agricultural systems throughout Mexico and California. She also continues to unspool and embrace the layered complexity that comes from contextualizing tradition through a contemporary lens. “I find myself trying to merge both worlds,” she explains. “It’s allowed me to ask how an object as simple as a tortilla may invite conversation on the deeper meaning of maize, educate on ancestral farming practices, and support farmers who are saving the future of food.” And the most impactful gesture might be inviting others in — consciously spotlighting this generational knowledge in a way that makes sense for the present. “I have found a sense of freedom, pride, and a deeper understanding of my own identity through this,” April explains. “Food has the ability to stir something up in you — energetically, spiritually, emotionally. It can connect you to something bigger…and that’s what I’m here to offer.”

Full story available in Making Sense Vol. 1 Book

Making Sense is a publication series with Le Labo Fragrances that is a study in distilling life to its essence, as told through the stories of 12 individual who have fearlessly hand-crafted lives of their own making.

Read more about the series here.