In the concluding portion of this interview with Jair Téllez (see part one), the chef talks about shifting his focus from Ensenada to Mexico City, where three years ago he opened MeroToro, a bustling restaurant in La Condesa. The restaurant is actually the subject of a recent piece by Mark Bittman which describes the cooking as "contemporary, creative, smart no-name food made by an American of Mexican extraction in Mexico." At MeroToro, for example, Téllez deftly handles everything from braised meats with poached eggs to delicate, briny seafood dishes that would challenge most stereotypes of Mexican food.
Here Téllez also talks about how the move has affected his relationship to his first restaurant, Laja, and how he views the community of contemporary Mexican chefs.
When does MeroToro come into the picture?
It's like 2008, when it gets a little tough over in Laja with questions of violence, the economic crisis in the U.S., and the overall perception of Mexico.
Did the opportunity just come to you or did you seek it out?
I looked for it. As is always the case with me, I felt the impulse to leave. I was burned out. It really beat me down — the idea that for six years I'd make food at Laja and not know if people were going to eat it. I said, "Why don't I find something that's the complete opposite? Why can't I find myself in a situation where I'm making food and know that it's going to be consumed?"
The process at Laja became something where I'd conceive things so that it wouldn't hurt too much if no one ate the food. I guess you could call that a depression, and a depressed cook is a worthless piece of shit.
I had met the people that ended up being my partners — Gabriela Camara of Contramar being one of them — a while back, and they always told me that if I ever wanted to do something in Mexico City, that I should give them a ring. That day finally came. It almost seemed fictional: I picked up the phone, gave them a call, and said I wanted to do something. We planned from then on, and in a year, I was in DF [Distrito Federal]. I've been here for three years now.
How'd it go at first?
It's in my nature to say that it was a breeze, but it actually was really hard — a huge change. We had a clear idea of what we wanted, but at the same time, we didn't. We've learned so much. I had never done inventory or worried about food costs or percentages at Laja. None of that stuff.
It was slow?
It didn't start out extremely slow. It was actually a little more painful in the sense that it wasn't slow enough to feel like it was a crisis or busy enough to feel like it was a success. I realized two things early on: that the food needed to come out quickly if I was cooking in the city, and that the food needed to be less me.
What does that mean?
It needed to be a little safer. In Laja, the idea of lacking something made intuition and creativity easier. It's like what Michel Bras said at MAD two years ago: the greater the adversity, the greater the creativity.
Now you get to the city and there's this lack of adversity, this abundance. It makes you way more deliberate, and in my case, I had never functioned like that. It's not that you have everything, but you just have to create your challenge and adversity. It's taken a lot of effort to learn that and adjust.
So we spent about a year learning, trying to understand. At a certain point, in a really unexpected way, the place found its groove. And more and more people started coming. For me, the two restaurants are very different. MeroToro is an urban restaurant with legible food. Laja is vertical, MeroToro is horizontal. But they're both me, in a way.
Do you miss Laja, now that you're here in DF most of the time?
The question you might ask is, "How can Laja keep going if I'm only there once a month?" But these guys have been there from the beginning, and I don't even need to talk to them about menus or dishes. They are Laja. When we talk, it's to see how we're doing and feeling.
Why are you here most of the time?
Because I'm really happy here. It's clear that I have to be here. I'm still very much in Laja, the way I feel. It's not that if I'm here at the high volume restaurant, watching the rice being made, it turns out better. No. It's that if I'm here watching the rice being made, it makes me better. It's a little subtle. What keeps me sane and happy is being here and cooking. And maybe I'm still recovering from that depression, that pain I often felt at Laja of not having people to enjoy my stuff. That's a heavy wound.
A big part of my happiness has to do with being with people, and here I get that.
Finally, let's talk about what's been happening in Mexico gastronomically, in general. What do you find most compelling about the culture and the community of cooks?
The interesting thing that's happened in Mexico — and I can't go too far back, because I haven't always been here — is that more people are becoming professional. They have more technical tools, as well as more human or cultural tools, in the sense that they understand now that they are human beings cooking in Mexico, and not human beings making Mexican food. I'll explain: historically, Mexico has always had this post-colonial thing where we'd say that our food was just as good as Spanish food or just as good as French food. It was always "as good as."
But now, thanks to this new community, to what happened at Mesamerica, we're realizing more and more that Mexican food just is. It's good because it's good, and there isn't that geographic or historical reference anymore.
Why'd that come to be?
It goes back to that question of professionalization. It all got more cosmopolitan, in the sense that you had people like me, with these atypical backgrounds, going everywhere and then coming back. It became more open. We started to have a less impulsive way of thinking about what the nation was. It wasn't about ego or power anymore.
I remember ten or so years ago, when Arzak came to Mexico and his guys brought with them this technical baggage. They were cooking Mexican food with their training, and that was important. It was definitely not the only thing, obviously, but that's something that sticks in my mind.
Mexican people started thinking about balance, technique, texture, in interesting, new ways. We've always had amazing flavors, but suddenly we brought in those elements of technique into the cooking. And there have been a bunch of important figures who've contributed to that.
And around all of this came a dining culture that was no longer the elite that wanted the same thing, or the customers that would go to Chicago or New York and then come and talk about their experiences. No. Now, they were talking about the meals they had had at Contramar, at Pujol, and MeroToro. Like I said, it became more cosmopolitan.
Finally, now that you've described the progress that's been made in a relatively short time, what are the goals for the future?
The goal has to be — and I'll speak personally — is to work with people and perhaps change the way they think, in the sense that I want them to see life through cooking, and see the potential that has to bring people together and create community. I started backwards in a lot of ways, and Laja taught me to try not to worry so much about being recognized. It's tough, but the only thing that really matters is forming the community. If people from the outside recognize that, fine, but that's not the goal.
· Jair Téllez on Mexico and Laja's Unlikely Story [-E-]
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