I traveled to Mexico City to attend the Mesamerica last May with much trepidation and admonitions from everyone and anyone I spoke to about my trip. To my surprise I found Mexico City similar to other cosmopolitan cities with both swanky areas like Polanco and Condessa and the less fortunate parts of town. My drive to the Hyatt hotel from the airport was eerily similar to one a few weeks ago in Lima, Peru. While staying in the Polanco area I felt like I could be in Madrid, Naples, or Lisbon. I have to say that despite having heard and read a lot about the young chefs bringing Mexico and their cuisine into the international arena, I did not know exactly what to expect. Having met many of these chefs and restaurant owners at other international events and knew some of them but had never tasted food from their own kitchens.
Last spring I was planning a trip to Mexico and I had a list of restaurants that I planned to visit and when I mentioned this to Elena Arzak of San Sebastian Spain she said that I had to go to Biko in Mexico City as the two Basque chefs Bruno Oteiza and Mikel Alonso were two I would enjoy meeting. They had both moved to Mexico from Spain to work at an Arzak restaurant in Mexico many years ago and stayed there to open their own restaurant.
I got names of a few chefs from Oswaldo my friend and sous chef at Mugaritz, San Sebastian who hails from Mexico and one of those names was Jorge Vallejo, all of thirty years of age, a Pujol (Enrique Olvera’s famed restaurant) alumni who had also staged with Rene Redzepi at Noma. Unfortunately that trip had to be postponed but I knew I was going to be at Mesamerica in May 2013. It so happened that the first morning at the auditorium I met Virgilio Martinez of Central restaurant in Lima who happened to be carrying a package from me sent by our mutual friend Franco Kisic of Lima, Peru.
We discussed our plans for the next few days and he said I have to go visit Jorge Vallejo, a sentiment echoed by David Kinch of Manresa later that day. Luckily I had reservations for dinner at Quintonil the next night and though I missed tasting what Chef Vallejo demonstrated on stage that day I did get to taste his signature dish at the restaurant. David Kinch, who had cooked in the Quintonil kitchen the previous night, was there for dinner the same night as me.
Dinner at Quintonil highlighted Jorge’s dexterity at putting together dishes with products typical of the region and his use of many forgotten ingredients and techniques. In a casual setting his modernist approach accompanied by Alexandra’s professional yet warm hospitality convinced me that it was not going to be my last visit to Quintonil. The following night I dined at Pujol which is perceived as the Mecca for cuisine in Mexico and I was better able to gauge Jorge’s creativity and less formal approach to his cuisine.
What made my experience memorable was the husband and wife team of Jorge and his wife Alexandra Flores. It reminded me of my husband and I when we opened our first restaurant and how hard it was to get a new project off the ground. That was 30 years ago and in conversations with the young couple we found many co incidences.
In August I met this young duo again in Copenhagen at MAD 3 and we had a great time, especially enjoying some great meals together and while hanging out with the whole contingent from Mexico. I am looking forward to seeing them again at Mesamerica and seeing them progress and earn well deserved renown. At the first World’s 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America Quintonil earned the 21st spot while Pujol ranked # 3. Mexican cuisine has come of age and earned a well deserved place on the International scene.
Last month my interview with Jorge Vallejo (an abbreviated version) was published in the examiner and I am posting it with some more details and pictures of Vallejo’s plates.
A conversation with Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil, Mexico City
Chef Jorge Vallejo along with his wife Alexandra operates the Quintonil restaurant in Mexico City. Vallejo has spent time in kitchens of cruise ships, hotels like St Regis, Condessa DF and overseas. Before opening Quintonil in 2012 the couple worked at Pujol for Enrique Olvera, the famed Mexican chef who put Mexico on the international culinary scene.
Vallejo creates a very contemporary Mexican cuisine using forgotten ingredients, grains and herbs such as amaranth or quintonil in Spanish, after which the restaurant is named. Vallejo’s dishes while new in their approach reference traditional dishes like chilacoyota squash with a mole or bitter herbs with a bright orange sauce and local cheese ,his signature dish that he demonstrated at Mesamerica last May. Alexandra trained in Switzerland and then handled the front of the house at Pujol, and now she runs the Quintonil dining room with aplomb. The understated restaurant with a small dining room and courtyard adjacent to the compact kitchen is located in the upscale Polanco neighborhood of the city. At the first ever 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America 2013 event in September, Quintonil won the #22 spot, a laudable feat for this young duo.
Questions for Chef Vallejo:
What came first the love story or the dream of opening the restaurant together?
Definitely the love story. We both met while working together at Pujol. Enrique didn’t know that we were dating for months, he found out much later, and Enrique was my best man at our wedding.
Is there anything you find stressful about working together?
Sometimes it is hard but we are very passionate about what we do. We are a very good team, we respect each other and take decisions together and the share the risks as well. As a couple we have the same goals.
At what age did you enter the kitchen and what was the first dish you cooked by yourself?
I started cooking when I was 16 years old as an assistant cook in a tiny restaurant with a staff of three people in the kitchen. One day the chef and his son the other cook quit their jobs and I took over the responsibility of the kitchen for one week while we looked around to find more cooks. The restaurant had a prix fix menu this changed every day so initially I cooked what I had learnt from the previous chef. Later I started to cook my own food of course but in that experience I realized that cooking is what I want to and will do for the rest of my life.
To do my best every day, work in a clean kitchen, work hard, and with speed.
What are the most important qualities that young people entering this profession must have?
I think first discipline, then order and finally always to be hungry to learn more. You need to be very focused if this is the life you want because it is a very hard life.
From your experience do you think it is important to train at culinary school?
It is good if you can learn in school to do things in the right way, but I feel it is important to work in a professional kitchen at the same time in order to learn practically. That was what I did since in this way you challenge yourself every day.
What is your most significant food memory from your childhood?
Each day that I spent with my grandmother it was a day to enjoy good food no matter if it was fancy or not. I learnt that you need to cook and eat good food every day otherwise life is not worth anything.
What is your favorite time of the year in the region where you live and work?
I love the period from July until September and when mushrooms are in season.
You had the good fortune to train with chefs such as Olvera and Redzepi however how do you define your particular style of cuisine?
I like to think that my particular style of cooking comes from my pride in being a Mexican , specifically a contemporary Mexican citizen, so I attempt to reflect this in my way of cooking using native products, paying attention to the past but heading towards the present.
Which peers are your ideals or role models?
Enrique is my mentor, and Rene Redzepi is also a chef that I learned a lot from when I was at Noma, even now he is very supportive of and gives me great advice when I approach him.
What is it that you want to convey to your diners with your plates and what reaction are you aiming for?
I try to speak to them through my dishes to be very honest in my thoughts and in my process of cooking the dish. I always want to make good food in order to make people happy. I want to remind fellow Mexicans of our history and who we are, and I want to make people from other country’s realize this and to be surprised to say Wow! This is Mexico!
In food it is very difficult to give all the people what they want, at Quintonil I like to think that people come to our restaurant and allow us to cook for them with liberty.
You are a contemporary visionist in the kitchen, what inspires you every day?
I try to challenge myself every day , to be better with my team and make them better, thinking about good food inspires me, making our customers our friends inspires me. I think in cooking you need to like to give and share and that is my inspiration.
What is your definition of ‘taste’?
It is a way of life and I live for the taste, it is the possibility to evoke emotions.
What is your favorite product to work with?
For me it is important to cook with the best products that I can find, it doesn’t matter if it is very expensive (though I don’t like to use expensive stuff), they just need to be the best quality.
Which two other cuisines do you enjoy besides Mexican?
I love Indian and Japanese cuisines.