Maricela Vega to leave Poncey-Highland restaurant 8Arm

8ARM Executive Chef Maricela Vega. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

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8ARM Executive Chef Maricela Vega. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Maricela Vega, who has served as executive chef at celebrated Atlanta restaurant 8Arm for two years, is leaving the eatery next month.

Vega first announced the departure in a post on her Instagram account, clarifying that 8Arm will remain open.

On March 17, Vega will release a menu focused on Mexican cuisine that will be served at 8Arm through her April 17 departure.

“It’s going to be a menu I always wanted to run, but I was too shy to make 8Arm entirely Mexican,” Vega said. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to do it.’ That’s how I got the job anyway, so I’m going to finish up in full circle mode.”

She called the move from 8Arm “very bittersweet, but exciting.”

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The Five-Minute Egg Gold Rice at 8Arm comes with plenty of components to mix together. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

The Five-Minute Egg Gold Rice at 8Arm comes with plenty of components to mix together. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

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The Five-Minute Egg Gold Rice at 8Arm comes with plenty of components to mix together. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Vega, who runs the popular Mexican food pop-up Chicomecóatl, joined 8Arm in 2019. She quickly put the restaurant on the map with her inventive, vegetable-focused menus.

“This socially conscious poet of masa and plant material has found a home that perfectly suits her,” AJC food writer Wendell Brock wrote in a June 2019 review after Vega took over the kitchen at 8Arm.

A year later, Vega garnered a James Beard nomination as a Rising Star chef.

Vega grew up in Dalton — about 90 minutes north of Atlanta — after her family immigrated from Mexico to California and made their way to Georgia. She served at restaurants including Midway Pub and Empire State South before getting kitchen jobs.

In an effort to source ingredients locally, she’s developed close relationships with area growers and food producers.

Upon her departure from 8Arm, Vega said she plans to focus entirely on Chicomecóatl, specifically developing a line of tamales and other masa products including tortillas and tostadas that she wants to sell in co-op grocery stores starting in 2022.

But first, she’ll travel to Mexico to help her girlfriend, Atlanta chef Karina Rivera, set up a chef residency cafe, as well as begin work on a restoration project on a plot of land inherited decades ago by her grandfather. The eventual goal is to grow 50% of the corn she’ll use in Chicomecóatl products on the farm.

Vega hopes to showcase her food during a “tamale tour” of the Southeast soon after her return from Mexico, with potential stops in New Orleans, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Jacksonville and Asheville to “get people excited about my work,” she said.

She said coming up on her two-year anniversary at the restaurant and the struggle of working in the restaurant industry during the coronavirus pandemic provided clarity about how she wanted to shape her career.

“This project is my lifelong work,” she said. “I think everybody had time to think about what really mattered. How can you keep pulling yourself in two directions? I need to create the income to make this a reality, and being an executive chef for anybody that’s not you is not going to provide the income or the time to do the things you really need to do.”

8Arm opened on Ponce in 2016, and later expanded with 8Arm Wine and outdoor kitchen and bar Sidepiece.

The restaurant was co-founded by Nhan Le and Angus Brown, who also served as executive chef and passed away in early 2017.

“It was special,” Vega said of her time at 8Arm. “It allowed me to grow and spotlighted the work I was doing. I never expected to have a national presence of the work I do...being a Mexican woman executive chef in Atlanta was huge to me.”

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