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Jair Téllez on Mexico and Laja's Unlikely Story

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Photo: Adalberto Lanz

Jair Tellez, who has emerged as one of Mexico's most important chefs, serves as a clear example that his is not an easy country or culinary culture to codify. Tellez now spends most of his time working at the bustling restaurant MeroToro, in the capital, but he opened Laja, his first restaurant, thirteen years ago in the middle of nowhere in Ensenada. It's a three and a half hour plane ride to get from one of his businesses to the other.

Téllez's journey to Laja is the subject of the first part of this interview. On its face, the restaurant seems a shining, carefully conceived example of locavorism, rugged naturalism, and destination dining. It's an airy barn in an area of Mexico that keeps gaining more and more attention (Anthony Bourdain recently shot an episode of No Reservations in Baja, and Rick Bayless is a huge fan of Tellez and the region), with a garden beside it and horses running about the grounds. But as Tellez explains, the place developed out of necessity, luck, and most importantly, believing a fantasy that "for some goddamn reason" ended up becoming a reality.

When did you start cooking?
I literally began cooking when I was a little kid, in my house. But I started cooking professionally around 1998.

Why did you get into it?
Because I couldn't really help it. I tried to study anthropology and law — all these things to avoid it — but it was something I had in me. I was about 24 when I made the choice. My first cooking job was when I was thirteen, at the Tijuana racetrack. My dad just told me to go and try it out.

You're from Tijuana, right?
Yeah, that's where I grew up. But at the racetrack, I'd go peel onions and watch the cooks smoke pot between services, and they'd give me daiquiris. My dad thought that experience would make me not want to be a cook, but that's precisely what did it [laughs].

It took some time, though. I always thought I wanted to study and intellectualize and go away from cooking. All of the men in my family were lawyers, so I thought I'd do that. Most of all, I wanted to live in Mexico City, so law seemed to make sense.

But when I came here, most of the time I'd be going to the markets, eating tortas de pabo, and having more than a few bad cases of diarrhea. I fell in love with the city. I have such an enormous amount of love for this place. But I realized pretty quickly, even without knowing exactly what I wanted to do, that I didn't want to be a lawyer.

What did you do?
So I went to Berkeley to study anthropology at St. Mary's College, and that was a discipline that appealed to me. I had heard about Chez Panisse — this was around 1995 — and the area really appealed to me, too. But then I ended up in New York, following a girlfriend basically.

You worked at Daniel?
Yeah. First I started out at the French Culinary Institute, but then I started doing my apprenticeship at Daniel, which blew me away. It really opened my eyes. I remember doing a wedding, and Boulud was screaming and yelling and going fucking crazy. My goal was to plate and not have him scold me. He didn't, and I felt like I had won a race at the Olympics.

I convinced them to take me on at the restaurant, and my first task was to prepare 24 potatoes. I did them really well, I thought, but when I presented them to the prep cook, he said that when they asked for 24 potatoes, they expected that they would all look the same. I loved that rigor. It was like that for everything. Every day there was a lesson.

How long were you there?
I was there for a year. Eventually, they started letting me make soups and prepare broths. It was the most amazing of schools, basically.

After that I went to the Four Seasons in Mexico City. And I hated it. After two days, I called Alex Lee at Daniel and basically wept. But he told me not to worry, and that I'd learn from any place I went. I ended up meeting some people and learning some things, but then I went to San Francisco after eight months and worked with Roland Passot. That guy also wowed me. He'd work everyday at the restaurant, and he was a classic, hardworking chef. I also worked at a place called Gordon's House of Fine Eats, which made lots of fried donuts and things like that, which was a bit psychologically challenging. But I liked it because I enjoyed working the line.

When and why does Laja come to be?
I realized that I liked being with Mexicans. I felt the cultural affinity. I wanted to come back to Mexico and work with Mexicans and bring the rigor I had picked up in the states with me. It sounds a lot more linear than it actually was, but I thought to myself that I wanted to make decisions that were symbolic, to opine with what I did. So I decided to open up a place in the middle of nowhere, basically. It was where I grew up.

We bought a piece of land in like 1999, hoping that it would be a destination restaurant with really nice food. In the middle of nowhere. The only thing that would have made sense was for it to fail, but it didn't, for some goddamn reason. It was born out of impulse, not reason.

I had to go to the hardware shop and learn all this shit about wiring, when I had no idea. People would ask me what I had planned, and I'd just tell them I was going to make elotes. When I told a guy in the town that I wanted to make really nice food with what we had there, he looked at me and said, "Shit! All we eat here is eggs and onions." People made all these suggestions about ways to make money from it, but I just kept quiet and did it. I met a few people from the area, a few young kids, and gradually it came to be that they committed to working on the project, even if they didn't have anything to do with gastronomy.

How'd it go at first?
I think it took two days to get our first customer. It wasn't and hasn't been easy. The menu had four or six dishes. The garden was a dream more than a reality. We'd have to go to Costco most of the time. I had imagined a Valle de Guadalupe that didn't really exist. I learned from that experience that you had to pretend a bit, to believe in a fantasy, so that it ends up becoming a reality. In other words, you have to be a bit of a lying prick [laughs].

So when does all the stuff about having your own garden come into play?
Our menu's never really said anything about "the greens from the garden" or anything like that.

Yeah, but when do you actually have it and begin to use it?
It happened like four or five years later. I realized this profound thing: that I just needed to do things so that we would have what we needed. We had no one to make bread for us, so we ended up making bread. And it's pretty good. I brought in some friends at this new age spa who had lots of experience making gardens, and so they came over and helped out. They taught us how to do it. That was a huge change.

How has the restaurant changed, in your eyes?
At the beginning Laja was trying to be French in terms of technique and a lot of things. We'd debone everything, for example. It reflected what I had learned my entire career. But gradually I learned to make good food with just a few ingredients, because it's the only thing we could really manage.

So it comes from necessity and the conditions more than anything else?
Laja absolutely comes from intuition and necessity. We'll cut the herbs right before we make a dish basically only because we don't want them to go to waste. It's not because we want to make a three-star restaurant. It's because if it isn't used, I'll have to eat it myself!

And would you call the restaurant Mexican?
I don't think it's Mexican or American or French. It's Laja. It's what the place and our necessities and intuitions formed and continue to form.

The tough years changed the place, and my style, a lot. We learned that you didn't need a great amount of stuff to make a dish. I had very few references when I came here, and I just had to come up with it. It's an oneiric place. I imagine the Basque grandmother making stews, or an osteria in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps a place like this is more likely to pop-up in the U.S.

How do you mean?
Look at Napa. It's like Tuscany or something like that, but if you really dig down deep, that isn't actually there. What it took was people who dreamed and wanted to work really hard.

And Laja more than anything is about the story of its people. We have seven guys here, and I've seen them grow up. Little by little, they grew proud and committed to this project, and now I'll go over there and see this kid who showed up when he was 18 and now has a bit of grey hair on his head. Just a bit. And I get emotional.

It took a bit of time to convince the team, but at a certain point, a waiter might come into the kitchen and say that a woman visiting just had the meal of her life or that a person started crying because they were so moved by the experience. That's the kind of potential this kind of restaurant and these conditions have.

But what about the people that say that Ensenada is this rich land with amazing product?
There's some truth to that. In all of these fantasies, there's some element of truth. But like I told you, I had to imagine it so it could happen. So did Hugo d'Acosta, Pablo Ferrer, and Benito Molina, pretty much at the same time. And that's what made this extremely peculiar event and place happen.

Video: "Laja and Jair Tellez (Subtitled)"

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Laja

Km 83, Baja California Norte, 22750

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