I have come to know and appreciate this very capable young chef over the last few years. The last time I was at Quintonil, gracing the dining room were Alice Waters, Mario Batali, Jon Shook, and Vinny Dotolo, all in town for Mesamerica. Every chef traveling to Mexico City has Quintonil on their itinerary, as do most journalists, food enthusiasts, and Gastro tourists. In the last three years Vallejo has taken the lead over his other peers on the fast track to celebrity status.
His food is becoming more natural and simultaneously increasingly polished and sophisticated. According to him people now expect an experience when they come to enjoy his food and he works hard at making that happen. My recent conversation with him was published in the Daily Meal and an expanded version version is posted here.
Jorge Vallejo: Redefining Mexican Cuisine
by Geeta Bansal
A prominent player in the progression of modern Mexican cuisine, Chef Jorge Vallejo is definitely playing in the big leagues now. Vallejo’s Quintonil restaurant in the posh Polanco area of Mexico City is not only attracting guests from all over the world to its dining room but also celebrity chefs to cook in its kitchen. Among the big names that have collaborated with Vallejo, most recently the chef from Clove Club in London for a pop up, while Vallejo himself has entered the international arena for similar events. Just after its third anniversary this year Quintonil placed #35 on the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list released by Restaurant Magazine in London on June 1st, 2015, and as of last year has been at #10 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. This year’s 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America award ceremony has moved from Lima, Peru to Mexico City a sign of the prominence of Mexican cuisine in the international culinary arena.
The Mexico City native post culinary school spent time in well-known kitchens such as at Enrique Olvera’s Pujol in Mexico City, the St. Regis, a cruise line, as well as a stint at Noma in Copenhagen with his other mentor Rene Redzepi. Vallejo’s time at Pujol was special since he met his future wife Alejandra Flores there, and the ensuing love story led to their opening Quintonil together in 2012. Alejandra a Swiss trained Pujol alumnus, now handles the front of the house while Vallejo makes magic in the kitchen.
Vallejo admires the work of Rene Redzepi and French chef Alain Passard and has taken direction from them to define his personal style of modern Mexican cuisine. Vallejo’s cuisine exuberantly embraces forgotten ingredients, grains and herbs of his region such as amaranth or quintonil from which the restaurant derives its name. His food is modern without unnecessary modernist flourishes choosing to reference traditional dishes like his chilacayote squash with a mole or bitter herbs with a bright orange sauce and local cheese or even a cactus sorbet. He works with the notion that Mexican cuisine is not replicable without authentic Mexican ingredients and he is representative of the new generation of Mexican cooks who hold the same beliefs. According to Vallejo, “The basis of our cuisine is ingredients that are native to Mexico and even if they are grown elsewhere they don’t taste the same since the soil and climate vary.”
South of Mexico City in Xochimilco lie the chinampas, small floating islands in shallow water where small farmers are practicing the ancient Aztec technique of reinforcing piles of nutrient rich mud, and organic materials to grow organic crops. Vallejo, along some of his peers, has joined with the community of these small farmers by using their produce in his kitchens. He credits the exceptional flavors of his food to the use of these ingredients supplemented by what is also growing in his roof top gardens at Quintonil.
Even the Mexican Pavilion at the Expo Milan this year owes its some of its design elements to this young chef who was on the winning team with an architect and biologist to design the massive corn cob shaped structure. Vallejo was also charged with curating the dishes of other top chefs of Mexico currently being served to visitors in Milan, his own being his crab tostada. This year’s invitation to the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon gave him an opportunity to hang out with greats of the food world, while in January he sat at judges table in São Paulo with chefs Mitsuharu Tsumura of Maido (Lima) and Alex Atala of D.O.M. (São Paulo) to determine which of the ten semi-finalists would represent the region at the San Pellegrino Young Chef finals, which were held in June in Milan.
It takes most cooks and chefs time to find their own rhythm in the kitchen. Have you found yours?
It does take time but I have always cooked true to my own self. I believe taste, flavor, and being able to serve our guests the most delicious food are most important. Of course you mature as a cook with time, but I still visualize and create food to retain deliciousness.
In your opinion, should cuisine be straightforward? Recently it seems a philosophical discussion is required to understand it.
Yes it is not necessary to put a lot of elements or techniques to make it interesting. Essentially a lot of guests don’t care about all that. What matters to them is the taste which is my first priority. The most important thing is to balance taste and ensure that the guest’s experience is exciting and make them want to return.
In most of Latin America the search for new exciting ingredients seems like a competition. Do people really think this way or is it a way of increasing business in restaurants?
Since we were conquered by other nations and cultures many of our gastronomic traditions were lost along the way. New ingredients and techniques were introduced that the local population, many of them being very poor, adopted as a sign of a wealthy lifestyle. Until recently most well-known and well regarded restaurants in Mexico were French or Spanish but now in the last decade the most well-known restaurants are Mexican, using our indigenous products and techniques. We now take pride in our cuisine and our culture.
How did the Proyecto Origenes project with chefs Mauro Colagreco of Argentina/France and Virgilio Martinez of Peru evolve?
We decided to work together on this Origins project to focus attention on our regions and also to discover similarities in our products and ancient cooking techniques. We want to look at all these elements without looking at borders but as a whole region. The three of us are also good friends and share similar points of view and so we wanted to be involved in a project that we can work on together. We will be traveling together to Oaxaca in September and then Peru early next year.
You are now an international culinary star and your name is the face of the contemporary Mexican cuisine. Has it changed your style?
I always try to look inside myself first and though I do see what is happening in restaurants in other parts of the world. I try not to take reference from them because I think we in Mexico have our own typical flavors and unique products. We are a very nationalistic and I try to preserve the Mexican heritage of our people while evolving as a cook. I use my memories and experience of growing up here and attempt present my own point of view. There are always references from outside of course like for me a good reference and teacher is Rene Redzepi and Alain Passard whom I admire because they do what they think and truly believe in and I try to follow that way of working.
Did you ever think three years ago that you will become an international star?
All I wanted to do was cook the way I think and feel and that is what I am continuing to do. Alejandra and I never thought about all this and it just happened but our work has not changed. Of course there is more responsibility to perform up to the expectations of all these people who are traveling from so far away now.
You were on the team that designed the Mexican Pavilion at Expo Milano this year. How did you get involved in the project?
There were about 40 projects submitted from all over Mexico and each project had a chef, an artist, and a biologist on them and I was one of the chefs. Our team was fortunate to be selected as the best and our design concept was used for the ExpoMilano. I have not been to visit yet but I was also asked to curate a menu from the dishes of other chefs in Mexico to give an overall view of Mexican gastronomy, and my dish is a crab tostada.
Why did you choose a tostada?
I believe that a tostada just like a taco is not just a dish but a true expression of our Mexican food and way of eating casually; it is something that you can find everywhere and is very representative of our culture. A tostada to me personally is like a carpet that can feature any kind of food, you can put anything on it like seafood, meat, chicken, vegetables and you can be creative. The tiny delicious crabs I like to use are from Ensenada on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
What foods are you partial to?
I am partial to seafood since in Mexico we have access to some great fish from the oceans surrounding our country. I love the fish from Oaxaca, Ensenada, and even California. I not only enjoy cooking with them but also eating this kind of food.
What are your other interests, and where do you hangout on your day off?
I love cycling, running, and I love to be outdoors after being cooped up in the kitchen so I usually head to Chapultepec park, a few blocks from my home. I enjoy seeing all the people relaxing in the park which also has some great museums. One place I like to hang out these days is Lalo the new casual eatery by my friend chef Eduardo Garcia who also owns Maximo Bistrot.
The essence of our city is in our street food and I love to indulge in it. It’s also very interesting to see how street food is evolving and they are making some great new things. Taquerias are my favorite places to eat because our city has the best tacos in all of Mexico and tacos are available everyday just about everywhere. They are what our people love to eat as they are fantastic.
As chefs become more renowned, does ego start to overtake true creativity?
There is a risk of that but it is important to keep it in check and only concentrate on creating the best experience and most delicious food. I still think and cook as I have always done and plan to stay that way.
Is the new generation of young chefs, like yourself, responsible for the international attention on your cuisine?
I don’t think I am so young (laughing) since I started cooking at sixteen and have been cooking for longer than 16 years now. Of course the climate in the industry is different and we are progressing at a much faster rate and so is our restaurant industry.
Are young chefs playing up the fun elements of Mexican cuisine?
Yes for sure, all of us young cooks are thinking about such elements while we celebrate our produce and are respectful of our traditions. We are actively involved with the producers of our ingredients on a personal level so we can encourage and help them to keep doing it. Sometimes economics plays a role and if they cannot make enough money they go off in search of other work. We want to encourage them by using what they grow so they do not abandon their traditional way of farming.
Mexico has become a prominent player in the global gastronomic arena. Have events like Mesamerica and the 50 Best contributed to this?
Of course they have helped tremendously to focus international attention and bring in diners from all over. The Mexican government has recognized that as chefs we are and can draw in visitors from all over the world and are actively promoting that.
What proportion of your guests is international now as compared to three years ago when you opened Quintonil?
At the moment I can say that 70% of our guests are from other parts of the world like Asia, U.S., especially from New York. Actually people are traveling to Mexico specifically for the gastronomic experience. Our restaurants, our street food are all getting a lot of attention so people are coming from all over to experience our unique food culture.
What is the biggest misconception about Mexican cuisine?
Mexican food is erroneously perceived to be fried or have a lot of heat, which is not the case. Another factor is that our ingredients do not grow elsewhere, so people outside Mexico are not so familiar with them. In order to cook authentic Mexican food you need the ingredients such as our corn. The other misconception is that people confuse it with Tex-Mex like burritos, chili con carne etc. This Tex-Mex cuisine can travel farther since it uses products found all over the world and in reality belongs to United States and is not Mexican. So I think the biggest misunderstanding about our food is the perception that it is like Tex-Mex.
The notion that all Mexican food is very spicy is especially not true since, in fact, Mexican cuisine is also very delicate and sophisticated, especially with the sauces and mole’s, some of which are sweet with smoky flavors. The only way to know this cuisine is to come here to Mexico and experience it. When we chefs travel out of Mexico to cook we carry these ingredients for our recipes to introduce people to our authentic flavors and recently I have seen that more people are becoming familiar with our flavors as opposed to even five years ago.
What ingredient is essential to your cuisine that you like to carry with you when you travel or cook in other parts of the world?
For me the ingredient that is specific for my cuisine and which I try to carry with me is masa. With this masa made from corn you can make a lot of things like tortillas, tostadas or tamales or soups. It’s a flavor that really defines our Mexican cuisine. I like to say that corn is the spinal cord of Mexican cuisine and it along with Mexican spices for me is an essential part of our cuisine.
Many well-known chefs have cooked in your kitchen in the last couple of years. What do you appreciate about these collaborations?
Yes we have had a lot of chefs visit and cook with us and it is a learning experience for me and my team. They bring in a new point of view and at many times we feel as if we share a very similar view of cuisine. When I travel to other kitchens it’s exciting to see their systems in place and broadens your horizons.
Have you been to cook in any restaurants in the U.S.?
I cooked at Topolambo in Chicago and it was an awesome experience with Alex Stupak and Rick Bayless, who is a very good ambassador of Mexican cuisine. Bayless has researched and traveled widely to comprehend Mexican cuisine.
What is the biggest mistake restaurants make when serving Mexican food abroad?
The basis of our cuisine is ingredients that are native to Mexico. Even if they are grown elsewhere they don’t taste the same since the soil and climate is not the same.
Any plans to expand your operations?
No, we both feel that this is our main project and we need to give it all our attention and it is our heart and soul. With all this attention after being placed by being #35 on the World’s 50 Best list, we feel responsible to focus and give all our attention to our guests who are traveling from all over the world.