The thirty-year-old Mexico City chef Jorge Vallejo is the man behind Quintonil, a restaurant that opened in March of this year and has already become one of the most exciting places to eat in the country. Vallejo's preparations there reflect a emphasis on ingredients from the area above all else, with a measured approach that manages to make things feel, look, and taste both impressive and legible, comforting and refined (see photos from a meal here). In the following interview, Vallejo talks about his path to Quintonil, his mentor Enrique Olvera of Pujol, and the new generation of Mexican chefs.
Where in Mexico were you born? When did you start cooking?
I was born in Mexico City thirty years ago. I started cooking at a small restaurant here and then, after finishing up high school, I enrolled in culinary school.
Where did you work after that?
I worked at Pujol. Before Quintonil, I spent a month at Noma, worked as executive chef at The St. Regis here, and also was a chef on the Princess Cruise Lines. The experience at Pujol was the longest, though, since I spent three years there.
Tell me about Pujol.
I always tell people that Enrique is a great friend and my greatest teacher. He really is the man who taught me about details and Mexican food. I always wanted to be cooking in an ambitious kitchen, and he gave me that — a place that was so focused on products and flavor. And since leaving the restaurant, Enrique's been maybe my greatest supporter.
What, though, do you think makes Enrique stand apart?
First of all, I see him at the leader of this movement for Mexican cuisine. What he's done for Mexico and Mexican cuisine is put it in the spotlight and make it recognized on an international level. In addition to that, by working to bring all of us together, it shows that he's not just focused on his restaurant and advancing his brand but in helping his country.
You opened your restaurant, Quintonil, in March of this year. Talk about the process of getting it off the ground.
It was really hard, and it remains really hard. But it's also the most incredible experience of my life. It's my life project. I met my wife at Pujol, and in 2010 we decided that we wanted to open a place together. But it took over a year to find a place, since it's very difficult to get permission from the government, which has really precise guidelines about where you can and can't open a restaurant. When we got it, we had to make renovations and fix up the space. And then, of course, we had to figure out what kind of restaurant we were going to be. It's been a crazy year and a half.
How would you describe the approach at the restaurant?
Quintonil is a restaurant that reflects Mexico, not necessarily in terms of its recipes or traditions but in terms of its products. We're trying to represent and serve contemporary Mexican citizens.
How do you view diners in Mexico these days?
The Mexican citizen of today takes care of himself, takes care of the environment, and cares not only about his food but where it comes from. So we've tried to develop relationships with the people that make our food and supply our restaurant and really have an emphasis on the product, which is important in Mexico. I've noticed here that more and more people are caring about the quality and provenance of the product here.
So, if I'm getting you correctly, you're more focused on the product and doing what you want with it than focusing on traditions or that problematic word, "authenticity"?
Of course we take into account tradition and sometimes reinterpret things recipes. But we're also working on evolving as chefs, and an important part of that these days is the product. It's not about worrying about how we made something 300 years ago, but how we want to make and eat it now.
For people that haven't had your food, can you describe a dish that you think reflects what the restaurant is about?
One that I'd single out is a dish of huazontles, cooked in two ways, with cheese from Chiapas, tomato salsa, and habanero chile. It incorporates excellent Mexican ingredients but also reflects an interest in new techniques and simply, the way I want to cook something.
How do you view what's happened in Mexico's gastronomy in the past decade? If you ask Jair Téllez, for instance, he'll emphasize the question of professionalization.
I think it's not only a question of professionals wanting to get better and better at their craft, but that it's also about people wanting to try more and more new things. I think that people are believing in Mexican chefs in a way that they didn't before. We're seeing now that the great chefs in Mexico are Mexican, which also never used to be the case. I think that in five to ten years this will really blow up. But I'll emphasize that we don't only need great chefs, but great diners that influence where gastronomy goes.
Finally: since you and many other cooks have passed through Pujol and Mexican restaurants that aren't necessarily new, do you consider yourself part of a new generation of chefs?
I definitely think I'm part of the new generation that owes a lot to Ricardo Muñoz, to Enrique, and all of the great masters. I'm part of the group that emerged from that and is now figuring out how they see Mexican food. We need to work to find our own voice.
Who else is part of that group?
There's Mario Espinosa, Pablo Salas, Edgar Nuñez, Diego Hernandez Baquedano, and a bunch more. We have a lot to say.
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