Two years ago, Jorge Vallejo opened Quintonil on a tiny street in Mexico's tony Polanco neighborhood. It was the first restaurant for this Pujol alum and Enrique Olvera acolyte, and has grown into one of Mexico City's top-rated restaurants in its own right. Quintonil has earned a spot on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list, and has been praised by some of the world's best-traveled diners. Chicago chef Rick Bayless told Eater earlier this year that he's a fan of Vallejo's cooking, describing it as "really, really fine and in some cases really brilliant."
Vallejo was among the many Mexican chefs who recently gathered in San Miguel de Allende to celebrate their country's cuisine at Mesa Abierta, the picnic and dinner series that is part of the Mesamérica festival. During the picnic on Saturday, Vallejo took a few minutes to chat with Eater about his first two years of Quintonil, his friendship with David Kinch, and why he strives to learn something new every day.
Your two-year anniversary is pretty much right now, huh?
Yeah. It's in this month, so what we did is invite some really close friends from different parts of the world to be present with us in the second anniversary. We did already two dinners with one more this Monday. The first one was with Virgilio Martinez from Central, we made lunch and dinner. Then we had David Kinch from Manresa. It was amazing.
They were both at Mesamérica last year.
The deliciousness of the food is the most important thing.
Yeah. We are really close friends. I've been in both of their restaurants as well. That's why I invited them because I admire them. I think we share lots in our way of cooking. It's not the same, but it's the same way of treating the product, to be really honest about what we are doing, not to be so pretentious. It's just about the deliciousness of the food. That's, for me, the most important thing when you're a cook. It doesn't matter if you have the best china or the best place to work, it's just about really being in touch with the people that work with you, with the producers, with your environment, and to be respectful of everybody. I think that's the link we share. Kinch, when I was a young cook, he was one of my heroes. Now, to have him as one of my friends, it's like a really, really a beautiful sensation.
How did you meet him?
Almost two years ago, I went to Manresa. I met him there. I said hello and he told me that he knew me because he knew a little bit about my work and started to following me.
Yeah, [that was] exciting because, like I told you, he was one of my heroes. He still is one of my heroes. He's a guy that's so sensitive and so emotional with his cooking, so it really excites me when I go to Manresa. I met him there and he came to Mexico to Mesamérica last year. We become really close friends. Then, I spent New Years with him at Manresa last year. So we're really, really good friends. We decide to invite him because it's a pleasure to have him in Quintonil. I called him by phone, I said, "Hey, David, do you want to come to cook with us for our second anniversary?" He didn't hesitate. He said, "Yes, I will be there. Don't worry."
Quintonil, Mexico City. [Photo: Official Site]
Also, with Virgilio, we are very close. We share similar ways of thinking so we decided to invite him as well. Then, Mauro Colagreco is coming on Monday. We have the opportunity because he's coming here to Mesa Abierta. We had to take this opportunity to have him as well in Quintonil. It's very inspiring for us, the work that he does in Mirazur, his restaurant, and to be a South American guy who lives in France and is much more successful than a bunch of great French chefs. It's really awesome the thing that he's doing in France.
Well, so now two years in, how are things going? How are you feeling?
It has been like a rollercoaster since we began. The first five or six months were very slow. Nobody knew us. [Quintonil is on] a very small street in Polanco. The entrance to the restaurant is a very small door, so people didn't notice. The first six months, nobody knew we were there. Then, people started to talk about us. People started to like what we were doing.
We're a very young team. I'm the oldest guy. I'm 32. There's a bunch of kids that work with me. [They] work like Iron Chefs. They are there from 9 am until the end of service. We have eight cooks and three guys that help us to clean everything. Total, we are 12 in the kitchen, but we do almost 100 [covers] every day so we are at full steam now. It's very good for us, after two years, to be busy.
We had this idea to say hello to customers and say goodbye to friends.
Also, it's very nice because we have a lot of regulars. Most of them go every two weeks. We have one that comes with his wife every week. He's my best customer. Every time I have a new dish, he's the first. I say, "Hey, Lorenzo, this is our new dish. You like it? What do you think?" It's an amazing thing that is happening here in Quintonil because since the beginning we had this idea to say hello to customers and say goodbye to friends. The customers become friends with us. If people go every two weeks to your restaurant, it's like [they become] part of your family. It's really nice.
I think we are still in the first 10 meters of the marathon. For me, it's like yesterday that we opened the restaurant. I always feel like I need to make the things better. I am very motivated to be better. It has been a really inspiring two years.
Already, you're on the list of must-go restaurants in Mexico City for people who are really into gastronomy. You're number 21, right, on the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list.
It's not our goal to be in this list, but it really helps.
Does it affect the type of people that you see coming in?
Yeah, it's good to have these kinds of foodies coming to your restaurant. They really are looking not just to have a nice meal, they want to have an experience. That give us the opportunity to be better, to give the best of us to them. Yeah, it's nice. But we don't do our job just to think about this kind of stuff. We really are in the mood of making the best we can because we really love what we are doing. All chefs say the same thing, but it's true. You cannot work 16-hour shifts every day for six days a week if you don't love your job. Just to be serving good food, having a nice time with your customers, making new friends. It's not a business; it's a way of living.
Quintonil, Mexico City. [Photo: Official Site]
In the interview you did with my colleague a couple years ago, you said that Mexico needs great diners as well as great chefs to influence gastronomy. How has that changed in two years? Is that happening?
Yeah. What's really exciting in Mexico City is the guys that have the opportunity to be dining in this kind of restaurant. It's not cheap to making the food that we do. It's not cheap to go to eat in these kinds of places, no? It's very exciting that the people [who are] going to restaurants, it's not only the rich guys. We have couples who are 22, 23, 24 years old that really have this love for food. It's not just for the high-end people, it's for everybody. Now instead of going to a club and having a lot of liquor, they spend their money on a nice meal.
I think it's becoming more and more interesting because, like I said to Gabe, now a bunch of great chefs in Mexico are giving the best of themselves every day, and people are really looking at them. I think it's happening now in Mexico. There's a very good feeling in Mexico about food. You can see it here [at Mesa Abierta]. All the dinners yesterday were full of people. For instance, in my dinner yesterday, I had people from two hours away from here in Queretaro or in Guadalajara or even Mexico City that just came for dinner. People are really feeling it. They're just like us. It's good. I think it's just the beginning. I think in another two or three years, this is going to be awesome for everybody.
It seems like it. What are some of the lessons you've learned in the two years of Quintonil?
We are not artists or anything. We need to improve every day.
Like I told you, I think that I'm just in the beginning. I'm always learning more stuff. I read about everything, about food, trade, cooking methods, a little bit of science, about history. I have a hunger to know more. I like to learn everything. I'm think I'm just really a young guy making his own approach to Mexican cuisine. For me, this is like going to school. Every day you can learn something new, and it's normal to be changing yourself because every day you have more experience. Every day you need to learn more and make your craft better because we are craftsmen. We are not artists or anything. We need to improve every day.
You're not artists?
No, we are craftsmen. We work with our hands. We are sweating the whole day. It's more than just being in photos and stuff. Every day I know new products or work in a better way. Some dishes we haven't changed since the beginning because people really like them, but we try to make them better and see if this cooking method will be better or try to improve the sauce to make it more delicious. The day I feel that I know everything, maybe I will close my restaurant. I'll go and make something else because I think every day I need to learn something new.