When Curry Met Molé
Last week, Chef Guillermo Tellez of Philadelphia's Square 1682 prepared dinner at The Beard House in New York City. The menu featured Indian-spiced Pennsylvania lamb rack, Serrano ham and Manchego with saffron sauce, and miso and yuzu-marinated tuna tartare. Makes sense considering the chef's culturally broad range of influences. We had a chance to interview Chef Tellez before dinner. Read on for his take on the best sandwich ever, the most useless kitchen tools, and Vegas' local game scene (quail, that is).
You’ve trained with some great chefs. Who has had the strongest culinary influence on your career?
Charlie Trotter is my mentor. Thanks to him I was able to meet a lot of other great chefs. You just have to pick the best from each one of them. I like Thomas Keller because of his demeanor and attention to quality.
You won the James Beard Foundation's first Felipe Rojas-Lomabardi Award of Achievement for Hispanic Chefs – how has his legacy affected your career?
It affected me in a very special way because it made me a role model for Latinos who want to go into this business. I get to work with a lot of Latin Americans and do things for Spanish TV networks in Philadelphia and Chicago. I like being able to help people who want to go further in their careers.
How has the Philadelphia fine dining scene changed?
The food scene has changed tremendously. There are a lot of young chefs and new people coming up and taking chances, opening small restaurants and doing a really great job. It gives you more opportunities to experience different cuisines in Philadelphia, and it’s very different from when I first moved and Steven Starr owned the only big restaurants. It’s much more interesting with different cuisines.
You do a lot of fusion — which cuisines most inspire you?
I’m a very big fan of Indian food. Many years ago I did a dinner with Floyd Cardoz for a series of events in Hawaii called “Cuisines of the Sun.” He was doing modern Indian and I was doing modern Mexican. I liked the way both cuisines complemented each other and the similarities – a lot of spices, a lot of chiles and both of them cook very slowly – between Indian curries and Mexican moles. To me, those cuisines are very interesting and have a lot of potential.
Do you have a favorite food truck?
There are a lot of them in Philadelphia [loud crashes from kitchen] … Lord, have mercy. There’s one Jamaican cart, the food they put out is really, really good. And in L.A., the Korean taco truck – Kogi – I thought was really good too. I think it’s a phase we’re going through. For a while I thought of opening a little cart selling like, coffee and apple cider doughnuts. If you have the right thing and find the right spot, you’re set.
What do you miss most about the Vegas dining scene?
It wasn’t very big when I first got there. There was Wolfgang Puck, Mark Miller, and Charlie Trotter. Not a lot of good places to eat. Now everyone’s really involved in fine dining out there. For a while, I had a guy who was raising quail and squab for me, sometimes rabbits, so I got to use a lot of those. Everywhere I go I try to make people grow things for me, even Vegas.
Of all the locally sourced and sustainable ingredients you work with, what have been the hardest to obtain?
The hardest part is to convince people to grow stuff for us other than what they’re used to. Some people have never been asked to grow baby beets, and when you get more specific as to what you want it’s a challenge. I’m lucky that I live close to farms so I can monitor them and they can call me and say, “Okay it’s this big now,” so I go and show them what size I want things to be. Once, this place was growing the best cilantro, better than in Mexico. It had such a strong flavor and smell and we really wanted it. Then two days later the heat just killed it all. I was counting on this cilantro for an avocado purée and it just disappeared before our eyes. It happens.
What do you think about chefs who refuse to make substitutions, or don’t cater to people with food allergies?
I think they’re wrong. In my kitchen, the word “no” doesn’t exist. I don’t believe in it because it makes you look like you’re either lazy or insecure. If I have to run to the store and get something, I’ll do that and we’ll accommodate any special requests: vegetarians, vegans, any allergies or dislikes. It’s about taking on the challenge and being confident.
Most interesting ingredient you’ve worked with lately?
I was cooking in a restaurant in Europe and I was asked to make something with raw artichokes. I was very skeptical about using them because when I clean artichokes they’re bitter, my hands get bitter. And I thought the scent would translate to the palate. I did them with just olive oil and lemon juice and thought, “Wow, this is really good.” They were fresh and crunchy, and the flavor stuck in my mind, so now I use them in my menus.
What do you wish food reporters would ask you?
I wish they would ask us our views on our food and sustainability, what we think about sustainable trends. I don’t get asked about that enough. We’re the first LEED Gold Certified restaurant in Philadelphia, so we're proud of that. We follow the fish guidelines from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We’re organic. We don’t use anything with pesticides. We recycle and we want to compost, but can’t find anyone to take it out of the city. That’s a goal though — you need to compost to avoid cluttering the land. I think a lot of chefs like me want to talk about what they’re doing for the environment.
We dig great sandwiches at The Daily Meal. What’s the best sandwich you’ve had?
The best sandwich I’ve ever had or made? [laughs] I had a foie gras sandwich at Blue Ribbon in New York many years ago, just brioche, really nice seared foie gras, a little apple butter, and a crunchy cabbage and apple salad that was really delicious.
What kitchen tools indispensible? Which do you think are totally useless?
Having the right containers is very important — having enough of the right size for everything you need to do. Technology is also moving really fast, and allowing chefs to be more creative using inventions like circulators, which are great. Everybody should have a circulator in their kitchen because when you cook something at a very low temperature it tastes so much better. One of my favorite things in the kitchen at my house is flexible cutting boards. I have great butcher boards but they’re a pain, so I just pull out the plastic ones, and transfer and scoop and it’s easy. I try not to buy too many gadgets. They don’t make any sense. A couple of my guys have these huge peelers that don’t make peeling go any faster. They’re just really big and clumsy. I’ve seen some fancy stainless steel oyster shuckers that seem mostly for looks. A good old cutting board and oyster knife works just fine.