Chef Jorge Vallejo: Redefining Mexican Cuisine, Part 1
This is the first installment in a two-part interview with chef Jorge Vallejo. You can find the second installment here.
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 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list released by Restaurant Magazine in London on June 1, 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.
After Culinary school, the Mexico City native 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. Flores, a Swiss-trained Pujol alumna, 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, instead 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 with some of his peers, has partnered with some 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 rooftop 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.
The Daily Meal: It takes most cooks and chefs time to find their own rhythm in the kitchen. Have you found yours?
Jorge Vallejo: 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.
Recently, it seems a philosophical discussion is required to understand food. In your opinion, should cuisine be straightforward?
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.