By Stephen Vargha
Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give.” Cuenca’s Mauricio Bernal is proving the point by delivering Christmas to the children of rural areas of northern Azuay Province.
The owner and chef of Sabatino’s Garden Restaurante, Bernal began giving gifts to twenty needy children 10 years ago. “It’s inside of me. I want to pay back to the community,” he says. “It’s not about me, me, me.”
Bernal discovered the needy children because of his father, René, who was a Major of Schools of Azuay schools — or school superintendent in North American terms — and knew which were the schools in the poorest communities.
The first journey into the heart of the Cajas was not easy for Bernal. Using rented horses for the very primitive roads, father and son traversed the mountains to get to villages near the Azuay/Guayas/Cañar border. That first trek took four hours to go up the mountain, and another four to get back down. Villages in the area have no Internet and no electricity.
The long hours to get to the very isolated villages that consist of a church, a school and soccer field and a “couple of houses” did not deter Bernal. His goal was to reach the neediest in Azuay. “I’m no rich guy but I can give you a smile and make your life a little richer,” Bernal proudly states. “Every little bit helps.”
One could say that Bernal’s first journey really began over two decades ago. In 1997, he moved to Chicago as a 17-year-old. In the Windy City, he started his working career at the bottom at Sabatino’s, an Italian-American restaurant known for veal parmigiana, flaming steak Diane and strolling musicians. He started as a dishwasher before progressing to salad maker, pasta maker, and seafood cook.
Ten years later, Bernal moved back home to Cuenca. He began his Ecuadorian restaurant career as a chef at Restaurante Todo Santos on Calle Larga in 2014. A year later, he opened Sabatino’s at Plaza El Otorongo, with a menu based on his Chicago experience.
Four years ago, Bernal moved down the street to his current location on Calle Roberto Aguilar. He added “Garden Restaurante” to the restaurant name to reflect the small garden oasis at the entrance. The dog-friendly restaurant has outdoor seating as well as indoor seating that overlooks his outdoor paradise.
Big portions and good food, are the hallmarks of Sabatino’s, Bernal says. “For six years, I have been serving New England Clam Chowder in a huge bread bowl on Wednesdays,” The soup has been especially popular with the North American expats.
Catering to American palates, Bernal boasts, “Everything is U.S. here.” That includes his Fourth of July celebration that he claims was the first in Cuenca. More important, are his Thanksgiving dinner parties. Typically, about ninety people attend the ticketed event that raises money for the Christmas gifts that Bernal collects for the poor children of rural Azuay.
Originally, the gifts started with candy and cookies. “It’s typical for candy bags in Ecuadorian schools. I buy big bags of candy and cookies to put into individual bags,” Bernal explains. “It takes five hours to pack all of the candy.”
The gifts Bernal takes to the mountains include toys, jackets, boots, and other much-needed clothing. He says it does not have to be designer labels or recognized brands. “They don’t need Columbia and other expensive brands. The children need functional clothes and shoes. Everything helps.”
This year, it was not the rough roads and rivers without bridges that prevented Bernal from getting to the most upper portions of the Cajas — it was the pandemic. “This was a difficult year with Covid-19 and we didn’t want to chance infecting those in remote areas with the virus,” he says. “We reduced our deliveries and I did not publicize the Christmas donations.” He says he’ll have his 4 x 4 pickup truck ready for next Christmas.
The word needs to go out for next year as Bernal is now helping 350 children. “We are not an organization. It is just my friends and me,” he points out.
Bernal adds that after Thanksgiving 2021, he would like people to donate clothes, shoes, toys, and money. “We need food, too, so pasta and canned tuna are always welcomed.”
The 19th century U.S. Representative from Washington state, William Carey Jones, declared, “The joy of brightening other lives, bearing each other’s burdens, easing other’s loads, and supplanting empty hearts and lives with generous gifts becomes for us the magic of Christmas.” Bernal hopes that in 2021 you can help brighten other lives with your generous gift.
He adds that it is all about the children and the elderly. “I do not want to be a hero or famous! I am just the guy at Sabatino’s.”