What was supposed to be a normal day in the woods changed the course of Montana chef and outdoorsman Eduardo Garcia's life in the most shocking way.
Eduardo Garcia can chop an onion faster, better, and more uniformly than you or I. With one hand. The fact that he cooks with a prosthetic where his left hand and 10 inches of his left forearm used to be makes his mad kitchen skills all the more impressive.
“I got a lot more rustic,” Garcia, a trained professional chef, outdoorsman, and occasional triathlete, says of his post-accident cooking style. He had to adapt — a lot — after the freak backcountry electrocution in 2011 that nearly took his life and then changed the course of it.
Garcia, a trim 38-year-old with bright hazel eyes and thick dark hair, is making breakfast in his home kitchen in a Montana community not far from Bozeman. His wife, Becca Skinner, is getting a few photos. His pit bull-collie mix, Veda, is flopped on the kitchen floor. It’s a relaxed vibe. Lopping off the stem and root ends of a red onion, he peels and starts to slice. “I’m not so worried about everything being the same size or not.”
During the time when he couldn’t cook at all, after 21 surgeries and several years of rehab, Garcia lost his “knife callus,” the toughed-up nub you get from holding a chef’s most essential tool in the same spot for hours and hours every day. Now, instead of the usual 10-inch chef’s knife workhorse, his implement of choice is an 8-inch Japanese Shun blade, a gift from a friend. “It was a lot of weight to hold, to not have a hand guiding it anymore,” he says. “I haven’t gone back.”
It’s a typically perfect winter day in Big Sky Country — clear and cold and sunny. Garcia’s community has a view of the mountain landscape that eventually becomes the Big Sky ski resort and Yellowstone National Park, with all the fly-fishing, hiking, and hunting you could want just miles away. Plus room enough for a one-third-acre garden and multiple off-road-worthy vehicles.
Garcia’s house is the creative and functional heart of his food business, Montana Mex, which sells a line of sauces (barbecue, ketchup, habanero), seasonings (jalapeño, mild chile, sweet), and avocado oil. It’s his personal kitchen and his test kitchen, a custom add-on with a wood-fired oven, a six-burner range, a commercial hood, and picture windows that frame the occasional bald eagle soaring by. Before he built this space, the smoke alarm went off all the time while he was cooking, just like it does for the rest of us.
Unlike the rest of us, Garcia’s onion slices are pretty much perfect. Minced garlic comes next, followed by a bunch of Lacinato kale, which he expertly and easily destems and swoops to one side of the cutting board not with a knife or bench scraper but with the metal tool that’s attached to his prosthetic left arm. In the documentary film about Garcia’s life, Charged, he can be seen using the grippy two-pronged hook as an avocado masher, making guacamole for Montana Mex.
Now, as he moves those kale leaves around, gesticulating and talking with his hands, the prosthetic seems almost natural, like another arm. You just don’t want to accidentally bump into what is basically a block of steel and carbon on a city street. “I’ll go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ ” Garcia says. “And then I’ll look at them and they’re like, ‘Did I just hit a wall?!’ ”
You’d never know that Garcia’s hair hides scars from burn wounds, and that it all fell out, not because of the electrocution, but from chemotherapy for testicular cancer that was discovered while he was in the middle of those 21 surgeries. Nor would you guess that underneath the blue flannel Patagonia shirt, some parts of this compact and athletic man simply aren’t there. In some ways, the amputation was the least of it. “I’m still missing ribs,” Garcia says. “I’m still missing huge chunks of muscles in my body.”
On October 9, 2011, Eduardo Garcia poked the bear. In this case, the bear was dead — but still unexpectedly dangerous.
It should have been a normal day for a kid who grew up in Montana. “It was a typical day bow-hunting,” Garcia says. “Park the truck. Head into the national forest. Go look for elk. It wasn’t an epic no-cellphone, backcountry type of adventure. Just going for a walk in the woods with my bow, trying to fill the freezer. I’d just never been in that drainage or seen that can before.”
“That can” — a rusty barrel sitting in the middle of nowhere. Inside, the remains of a bear cub. Garcia took out his knife, thinking that a claw might make for a good souvenir or piece of jewelry. Then the same 2,400 volts that had been the bear cub’s death blow hit Garcia. That barrel was supposed to be covering up an old mining cabin’s electrical line. It was live, and unmaintained.
Covered in third-degree burns, he somehow managed to stay upright. He hiked out on a road, a longer distance, but Garcia knew that if he fell on less-reliable terrain, he’d probably never get back up — or live. Eventually he made it to where there were vacation homes and got help. He was rushed to the ER in Livingston, Montana, then medevacced to the University of Utah burn unit in Salt Lake City.
The force of the voltage passing through his body was such that he had nine exit wounds.
The incident took place just “two, three as-the-crow-flies miles from where I grew up,” Garcia says. That was Emigrant, Montana, south of Livingston, east of Bozeman, and north of Yellowstone. The outdoors was his babysitter and his backyard, with horned owls and coyotes for neighbors. Garcia’s mother, Kathie, is actually a New Yorker of Jewish-Russian descent who had wandered off to Mexico — where she first met Eduardo’s father, Manuel, a fisherman — and then California (Eduardo and his twin brother, Eugenio, were born in Van Nuys). She was also a member of something called the Church Universal and Triumphant, which bought up land around Yellowstone and relocated to Montana.
To outsiders, the church was either a commune or a cult (its leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, had predicted the world would end in 1990, possibly from nuclear war; fortunately, when it didn’t, there was no Jim Jones — or Waco-like follow-up). When Eduardo first left the church’s self-contained community (which included everything from a chicken farm to hot springs) to attend public school, he remembers the other kids thought it was weird that they ate soy sauce and miso soup and organic foods. In other words, Californians!
As Charged recounts, Garcia was a hard-partying teen who’d decided to get straight and high on life. The outdoors inspired him. It was spiritual. Transformative. “There’s some kind of energy vibration I feel when I’m out in the woods watching an eagle fly or watching deer walk their way through a field,” he says. Cooking also inspired him. He started at 15 in the bar and grill at Montana’s iconic Chico Hot Springs and has been in the kitchen ever since.
“There is a general kind of adrenaline rush,” he says. “You’re cooking over live fire. There’s hot things, there’s metal, there’s sharp tools. You’re multitasking, people are shouting, your pulse is quickened. And then the end result of what you’re doing is potentially, hopefully, a smile or a satisfaction. You’re bringing joy and pleasure to another human being. That’s probably a more articulate version of what I would have thought at 15, which was like, This is rad.”
Garcia could have easily become a fishing guide or forest ranger, a Montanan living the outdoorsman’s dream. But having grown up with a father who’d left his three children behind to go back to Mexico and fish (Garcia did not meet his dad until he was 13), he went for the more traditional path: culinary school. He worked two jobs in Seattle to cover his tuition (one of which was as a model for a bronze sculptor), and after graduation, instead of getting stuck on the line at a hotel or country club, he scored a gig on a 107-foot yacht that took him from British Columbia to Costa Rica (and all ports in between). The crew was at the behest of the boat owners and their guests but with a lot of unsupervised time. When no one else was on the boat, there were opportunities for culinary experimentation and plenty of outdoor adventure.
It was on the yacht that Garcia met his English ex-girlfriend and Montana Mex business partner, Jennifer Jane. By 2007, they were back in the Livingston-Bozeman area, and three years later they started what was basically a family business (including Garcia’s sister and twin brother), taking fresh salsas and guacamole to farmers markets and local grocery stores. And then, suddenly, “the whole business was in ICU with me, holding my hand,” Garcia says.
Somewhat incredibly, the ICU became a film set. Charged is full of footage of Garcia before the accident and during his recovery. It opens on Day 8, his head shaved, black with burns. He is fully conscious. During the previous seven days, nobody really knew if he was going to live.
Before the accident, in addition to Montana Mex, Garcia and Jane had been pitching a TV food show focused on his cooking and his passion for the Montana outdoors, making the rounds of networks and Hollywood agents with a sizzle reel. The Food Network was interested, which is why they had all kinds of footage of Garcia. Jane and director Phillip Baribeau decided to keep filming, a move that in retrospect seems almost a bit too savvy.
It was also more profound than that. Making the movie became part of Garcia’s rehab. It was an act of faith for everyone — that there would be a movie to finish, and it wouldn’t be a eulogy. “A lot of that had to do with, I just didn’t realize the gravity of my situation,” Garcia says. “I didn’t realize how severe this was. Being in ICU and being wrapped in gauze and bandaged head to toe, I still wanted to have a purpose. I still wanted to have some autonomy. I still wanted to know that I had value. It’s hard to see yourself as a chef anymore when you’ve lost a hand and you’re told you have cancer and you’re wrapped up head to toe. That superseded any inkling of, Oh, don’t film this. I look like s---, or, Boo-hoo.”
The journey of the film finds him bonding further with his father (who died in 2017), getting involved with the Challenged Athletes Foundation as a triathlete, and eventually becoming a motivational speaker. Another handicapped triathlete urged Garcia to let go of his shame and modesty, to not be embarrassed by his prosthetic, to not be ashamed that he’d lost a testicle. He could embrace those things and still be the same cool, confident, handsome, cheffy, outdoorsy dude he was before.
“It’s a very scary thing to show your weakness,” Garcia says. “But to own who you are and share your truth is the first step in accessing your true strength.”
His ICU doctor in Utah also gave him a bit of a come-to-Jesus pep talk, pointing out that so many people who come through his burn unit, let alone have cancer or lose a limb, don’t come out of it nearly as well as Garcia did. “He looked at me and he was like, ‘Dude, your hair grew back. Your scars are nice and flat. You’re running and jumping. You’re largely you again. And you’re kicking ass. You have a responsibility to share what recovery can be with others. Tell your story, Ed.’ ”
When Garcia was first recovering from the accident, People magazine ran a story calling him “The Bionic Chef,” which made him cringe. You can’t really blame him for using that as part of his branding, especially when his story inspires others. “You could just be like, ‘Hey, don’t profile me as an amputee,’ ” Garcia says. “But no way. You have to use what you have.” It’s been seven years since the last surgery, and Garcia continues to live with PTSD. At this point, the recovery is more mental than physical. “Now I’m working on the psychological parts,” Garcia says. “Just, forgiving. I naturally said the word forgiveness. What do I have to forgive myself for? I don’t know. But I just said it. I shed many tears over the years. It was a very traumatic thing, to nearly die. But I sure as s--- don’t need to carry the weight of what happened with me every day.”
Montana Mex is now a national food business. With encouragement from Jane, Garcia got back into the TV show the two of them imagined 10 years ago, reimagined and scaled down, as a series of internet-friendly short films funded by Yeti. The Hungry Life finds him fishing, hunting, and hiking with various personalities while also cooking outdoors.
Back in Garcia’s home kitchen, the kale and onions have sautéed. They’ll be accompanied by huevos rancheros. These days the pleasures of cooking are simpler. It’s about reminding himself he’s a chef and also why he became one — not for the buzz or the adrenaline but the story and the experience. Sustenance. Camaraderie.
He’s doing more foraging, getting back into hunting, and has also taken up gardening. Eating garlic that he put in and took out of the ground means something to him. He’s also utilizing some of his Montana Mex products in the process: the avocado oil, which Garcia loves for its combination of good nutrition and high smoke point; the jalapeño and chile seasoning; and the habanero salsa over the eggs, which he fries four at a time in a cast-iron pan.
“I wake up every day just fired up,” Garcia says. “I don’t think, Oh, I’m an amputee, my life sucks. I think, I’m Eduardo Garcia. I own a company called Montana Mex. I’m married to this babe in the next room. I’ve got a snoring dog. … That sustained high I was looking for as a teenager, it’s right here, right now. It’s never, Oh, another day. Anything past the here and now is just a bonus.”
Find Eduardo Garcia, lots of his recipes, and his Montana Mex products at montanamex.com.
Photography: Courtesy Becca Skinner
From our February/March 2020 issue.