How Ale Santiago became a chef
Words and photos by Erin Austen Abbott
If you had told Alexandra “Ale” Santiago ten years ago that she would be the head chef of her own thriving business, she would have never believed you. But modern-day Ale has a different view on it now. “I cried the first time someone referred to me as a chef. I had to walk away and take a moment. It was then, finally, someone saw what I could bring to the table. I didn’t think that was something that I needed to hear until I heard it.”
Growing up in San Antonio, Santiago didn’t always know that starting her business, Sleepy Cactus, in Oxford, Mississippi, was the path she would go down, but looking back at the path that got her here, nothing would have made more sense to her. “I have always loved food. My grandmother would put me on the counter as a little girl, and I was her helper, like a mother’s helper. We would watch old Julia Child TV shows and create all types of dishes together for my family, such as kibbe, tabouleh, rice and beans, carrot cake, quesadillas, and sopa de fideo. It was so fun. I’ve pretty much been cooking my whole life,” shared Santiago. “We also traveled a lot when I was a child. We ate so many different food cultures and tried everything, so I was exposed to so many different tastes from a very young age. I read cookbooks like they were novels. I have hundreds in my collection, and I also watch a lot of food content via social media and television. It all adds to my current recipe development today.”
Like most young adults, Santiago wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do with her life just out of high school, but she knew she didn’t want to do it alone. After a two-week summer intensive workshop at The Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in New York, she followed some friends to Oxford, Mississippi, to attend the University of Mississippi. “I loved everything about the summer workshop except the structure. The structure scared me. I learned so much, and the instructors believed in me. But I had to choose between staying in New York or heading to Mississippi,” explained Santiago. She did all the traditional college things, joined a sorority, went to the football games, just had a great time. When it was time to pick a major, Santiago shared, “I was in the School of Education because I thought that I wanted to be a teacher. I’ve always loved kids. I stayed in elementary education until I started doing student teaching. It hit me really hard. The state of the educational system was almost too much for me, and it was around that time that Sandy Hook happened. It ruined me. I started to think about happiness and what brought me true joy. And I knew it was food. I had just turned 21 and dropped out of school and started bartending at Frank and Marlee’s the next day.”
While she enjoyed working as a bartender, it wasn’t cooking, which is what she was really after. She moved on to the City Grocery Restaurant Group, headed by James Beard-winning chef John Currence, moving throughout their restaurants and catering business, bouncing from Bouré to Snackbar to The Main Event to Lamar Lounge, where she learned a little bit of everything. It wasn’t until she worked at Oxford Canteen with Corbin Evans that she realized how fluid a restaurant could be. She learned how to function in a small space. “I got to see how versatile a restaurant can be and how you can do big things from a small space.” It was all of this history that led Santiago to open Sleepy Cactus, which sells items from a food truck, in select coffee shops, and also from the original Oxford Canteen location, a spot she knows so well, which is served from the alley alongside the Lyric theater.
“A big part of growing up in Texas was breakfast tacos. You would go before school to get them. Then, you would eat them for lunch. You would go after a late night. It was a huge part of my Texas culture. It was a happy memory and a big part of everyone’s home life there. So, I knew that I wanted to bring it here [to Mississippi] when I realized how many students at Ole Miss are from Texas,” said Santiago. With the help of Gretchen Williams at Heartbreak Coffee, Santiago was given a platform to sell her tacos without securing a structure. This time allowed her to develop a proof of concept with her tacos while also developing her own recipes for tortillas and salsa. “Learning to make my own tortillas was a critical part. It took about a year of testing many recipes to land on the one I’m using. I was overthinking it at first, but once I figured out what I wanted, it was a lot easier to do it. Doughs scare me, but I started challenging myself and went through the whole learning process.”
Along with Williams, David Crews and Ty Thames have been a force in helping Santiago go out on her own to start her business. “I haven’t worked for Ty, but I met him through David Crews who does the Delta Supper Club. They are always willing to answer my questions, and they found the food truck for me. They are always asking me, How can I help you to make you successful and make you something you want to be?” shared Santiago. “I hope we are moving to a place where we can get past ‘my success is my success, and I don’t want to share that with anyone.’ ”
Santiago’s vision for Sleepy Cactus is easy; she wants to make coming to Oxford a better experience for those visiting and the locals who want a quick bite via her food truck. “I would never want to take away from someone’s business, but I’d love to help make the experience better when you are here. I think food trucks alleviate some of the frustration with long wait times at the restaurants during busy times in town.” She wants to expand her menu over time to include more of her Mexican and Tex/Mex roots. She has ideas to bring certain aspects of her Mexico City heritage to Oxford as well.
As for being a young Latina starting her own business in the South, Santiago’s worked through the antiquated thoughts that it’s a boys’ club. Through the Southern Foodways Alliance on the University of Mississippi campus, Santiago met two chefs who helped change her mindset. “They probably don’t remember me, but the impact they made on me is what set me on the path I’m on today,” she shared. “I met Ashley Christensen and Marisa Donovan, and seeing them, and what they had done, at the point when I met them, they were so strong. I’ve followed their careers and used them as my guide ever since. It’s a hard line of work to be a young female in, but I want to show anyone that doubted me what they missed out on. Someone that didn’t look at me as a chef or having potential, I want to show that I can be right up there with them.”