Can you tell us about where you grew up and how you got interested in cooking?
I grew up in Mexico City, and was interested in food because of my great grandma, grandma and mom. My great grandma went to a culinary program in Paris, and my grandmother managed a bakery. My mother wanted to be a chef, and she took courses and everything, but her parents said she had to become a lawyer, she continued cooking and teaching classes even after she became a lawyer. I was so young and she didn’t want to put me in daycare, so she would take me with her. For me, growing up, it was normal that on the weekends I would go with my Grandma to the bakery and on the weekdays after school I would go with my mom. I loved it, and I think that’s how everything started.
How did you get started professionally?
I moved to Texas and when I turned 12, my mom put me in a school that was focused on careers, where I picked cooking, I would cook three hours a day, five days a week. There were a lot of people that came in to talk to us about what it’s like to be a chef or a wine director of a restaurant. One chef came in, and he looked like he loved his job. He talked about the reality of things, and how it’s a low paying job, but at the same time you realize that you’ll learn a crazy amount. How you get paid is with experiences. I wrote to him and pretty much stalked him until he gave me a chance to be in his kitchen.
I started working at a hotel when I was 15. I washed strawberries and took the strawberry tops off for hours and hours, and then I would just stay longer so I could see and learn. The chef asked what I really wanted to do, and he told me I should go to culinary school. So I moved to Austin for culinary school and continued working at the Marriott. I thought it was good for learning. Working at hotels is fast-paced and you see different things. At the same time, I was staging at places all over Austin. When I finished culinary school I travelled to Europe, and when I came back I went to intern at a restaurant called Mark’s.
It was a short internship, about 4 months, and I told them I really wanted to get my butt kicked. At that time I was 18 and I wanted to have that experience of a fast-paced kitchen, but at a real restaurant. Brennan’s of Houston was opening so I started working there and went through all the stations and everything, and I guess I heard a lot about Chris [Sheppard, former chef who left to open Underbelly] and how he went off to do his own project. I was very interested in butchering and things so I went to him and asked if he could teach me one day a week. We always kept in touch and after working for almost 3 years at Brennan’s, I took a sous chef position at a restaurant called Triniti. After 5 months I realized that I didn’t know how to delegate. I was trying to do everything by myself, coming in super early and leaving super super late. I just didn’t know how to be someone’s boss; I needed more guidance. Chris said he was opening a restaurant and that I should come. Of course I went, and I cooked with Chris for a year. We have a friend relationship also, but of course he’s my boss. He’s the one who taught me to really enjoy what I do. Regardless of how I messed up, he was always my friend and I think that’s what shaped a lot of how I do things now. He was the best inspiration.
I really wanted to go to [Enrique Olvera’s Mexico City restaurant] Pujol.. when I spoke to Chris, he let me go but he said, Go, kick ass and come back. I was there for 6 months and then came back to Texas. It broke my heart to leave but I am a resident here [in the U.S.] so that’s why I could always only go away for 6 months. I talked to Enrique about it and he said, You’re moving to New York, and you’re going to be the chef of my new restaurant [which was Cosme].
He said we were going to make the menu together, and even though I didn’t know anyone in New York, I said sure. That was 3 years ago and here we are!
It feels like the food world has really taken notice of Mexico City recently. Why do you think it took so long?
I don’t know. I think each country kind of gets its moment. It was Peru and now it’s Mexico. I think that more and more, chefs are starting to do Mexican restaurants, and it doesn’t matter that they are not Mexican. If they like doing it, then why not. I think it’s pretty awesome. The fact that they admire our cuisine and they want to go and learn… and it’s not that they are trying to be Mexican, it’s just that they like and respect it.
I think there’s a lot to be appreciated about Mexican Cuisine, that is suddenly coming our way. I feel like Mexico City is a really special place.
Really special, because everything sort of gets concentrated there.
Is there a food you long for from home that you can’t find here?
I think you you can find mostly everything here, except chongos zamoranos. It’s a curd that’s cooked with piloncillo and a little bit of cinnamon, and it’s like a sweet thing. When you eat it, it squeaks. It’s made with raw milk, which we really can’t use here. That’s something where I’m like Oh my God I wish we had it here.
And of course all the tacos and garnachas. Even if they taste the same, you don’t have the sounds of the streets. It’s kind of like the whole scenario makes it what it is. Tacos No. 1 in Chelsea Market is pretty fucking good.
What can you tell us about the new restaurant?
We’re taking over as a team. Enrique and I are in charge of the creativity of the menu, we have a chef that worked with us at Cosme to be full time at ATLA, Hugo Vera. Cosme is my baby so I can’t leave it just yet. We’re still figuring it out. We started with four cooks, now we have 20. We have to organize. We’re planning to open late March.
What is the concept like?
ATLA’s name and concept come from an Aztec symbol ATL-TLACHINOLI. Meaning the joining of water and fire. Two opposite elements. ATLA represents the union of drink (water) and food (fire). ATLA offers busy New Yorker’s a casual, homey experience, a place to gather and unwind. The space invites people to use it every day, at any time, as they were sitting in their own dining room.
How do you approach designing a new dish?
Well, it’s a whole lot of team effort. Enrique and I sit down and we talk about an idea and it’s a conversation. He says I want cauliflower and I say what about this? And I make a dish. It usually comes out really fast. Sometimes it’s like I have to make it 20 times in order for us to like something. And we approach it with mind to seasons and what’s available at the market. Sometimes a dish is one thing and then it becomes something else because New York’s seasons are short. Sometimes things are only at the market one week, but it’s so awesome. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most of all, we want people to feel comfortable and relaxed. We think about food as something that should be natural. It grows. No tweezers or anything – we’re not that kind of kitchen.
Are there many ingredients you need to source from Mexico?
Yeah we use basic dried ingredients like dried chiles and corn and beans. Then we use what we have available at the market, or often Montauk or Maine.
Is there something from the market you’re into right now?
We’re doing a play on a Caeser Salad. We’re doing Boston Mackerel raw… for dressing it’s aioli with clarified butter and burnt blue corn to make it like a crouton. It’s kind of crazy but good and the lettuce, we’re using radicchio, which is fun, and Castelrosso, which is a one of the cheeses we like. It’s from Italy, but, why not. We don’t want to label ourselves traditional. We are making Mexican food because we’re using the basics, but we use what we have here just like we would in any region in Mexico. They use their basics which is dried beans, chiles and corn.
What are some of your favorite kitchen tools?
Spoons – I have a spoon obsession… like, you have no idea. My cooks have to have two empty bains, one that says clean and one that says dirty and 20 spoons without water. I can’t live without spoons. Everywhere I go in the world when I travel, I have to come back with one spoon from every town I went to. I was talking to Matt Orlando, and Danny (Burns), the chef at Torst and Luksus. The three of us have these crazy obsessions. Instead of being a cat lady, I’m like a spoon lady.