Meet the First Mexican Chef to Earn a Michelin Star
"In my restaurant, we got rid of beans, guacamole, and margaritas. Once you break with expectations, you can begin to suggest new experiences to the diner."
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Español.
I met chef Carlos Gaytán during the worst photo shoot I've had in my life. I was taking pictures for the cover of a magazine I was working for at the time, and my appointment with Gaytán was in a little studio in the Colonia Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City. We had 45 minutes to do the shoot before he had to head to the airport and return to Chicago, where he's lived for 26 years.
I was nervous. It's not every day that you've got a renowned international chef in front of your camera—the first Mexican to earn a Michelin star and to come in third place on Top Chef in the United States.
When the moment came to take the first shot, my flashes weren't working. The chef looked at me, smiling, and even chatted with me about his experience on TV, and how one becomes accustomed to waiting. Finally, I decided to turn on the lights in the room and realized that the problem wasn't my flashes—it was that the lights had gone out in the entire neighborhood.
Gaytán, sensing my anxiety, told me, "You don't always have all the ingredients to make a dish. For example, I'm in the United States and I can't slow down when I'm making a recipe just because I can't procure x ingredient. You've got to use your imagination and be creative to fill in the gaps."
And in the end, that's how it was. With a little imagination, we did the shoot, saved the cover, and Gaytán made his flight.
His patience and wise advice stayed with me for many years. Recently, I met up with Gaytán again; this time, we talked about his cooking and his experience as an immigrant.
"You don't always have all the ingredients to make a dish… You've got to use your imagination and be creative to fill in the gaps."
Carlos Gaytán was born October 20, 1970, in Huitzuco, a city in the southwestern state of Guerrero. His family experienced many financial problems and Tere, his mother, started selling food outside their home; Gaytán helped her. An uncle taught him to barbecue. He learned the whole process, from the proper way to dig out and cure an oven to selecting and sacrificing goats in order to cook them.
"It was a really tiring job. We had some land on the edge of town where we barbecued. You've got to start at 9 or 10 at night, and then come back at 7 in the morning to have everything ready and able to be sold," he recalled.
When he was 20 years old, Gaytán began his long journey to the United States in search of new opportunities.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Carlos. Tell me why you chose Chicago to start a new life, instead of another city in the United States.
Carlos Gaytán: I came to Chicago because I had a cousin there and, well, I had to crash with him for a bit. And the city is incredible—so diverse. There are entire neighborhoods of immigrants from every part of the world. You don't have to travel far to eat great food from any place you want. And I like that there's really good fish in Chicago.
What surprised you the most when you got to Chicago?
When you start to talk with people in the United States, you realize that they live a kind of 'American dream' that's different from the one we know. For them, this dream consists of having a job—and [more often than not, it's] not a very good one—and being able to keep it for 20 or 30 years. They don't think about growth.
And I think Mexicans—we're people who are honorable and hard-working, but we need leaders who dare to try things. When I got to Chicago I saw a lot of [people who were afraid] to dream, to dare to grow, [or] to believe in [their] talents. We all have some talent; it doesn't necessarily have to be in gastronomy, but if you dare to grow and you work hard, you can do whatever you want.
Did you already know you wanted to be a chef when you arrived in the United States?
No. I needed a job and the first one I got was as a dishwasher at the Sheraton North Shore Hotel. There, I started to see how a kitchen was run and it was really interesting to me. I started coming in early, much earlier than my shift started, and worked late. I tried to really dive into the kitchen in order to learn. And I'd come home and practice, and do my homework. This attracted the attention of the chef, who made me work hard and had me work all of the stations [on the line]. I learned a lot, and a year later, I was already working as a cook.
Was it complicated?
It wasn't easy. Many of my Mexican peers criticized me. I don't know why there's so much envy among us. When my colleagues called me a brown-noser, I'd tell them, 'In 10 years, I'm going to have my own restaurant, and you're going to still be here doing the same job.'
After that whole process, you founded Mexique in 2008. How was the restaurant born? Mexique began in my home. [It started with] the dishes I made when I felt nostalgic, when I missed the food of my country.
I cook with the memories of my childhood, but I try to bring them into modernity. For example, I think of the green pozole that my mother made, and [ask myself] how I can transform it. I take advantage of my French schooling and everything I've learned over the years. The result: A corn croquette, served with pork belly and salsa instead of broth.
In 2013, you were awarded a Michelin star, which makes you one of three Mexicans who received that honor. All [three of you] live abroad. What does it mean to you to have earned something so prestigious?
Salvation (laughs). Mexique had been open for four years when the economic crisis hit the United States, [and we were] included. We were in our last week of operation when I received a message from Michelin Guides notifying me of the star. From that moment on, the restaurant filled up [with customers]. For my team and for me, it was a point of pride to receive this recognition of our work.
And what happened when you lost it in 2015?
I don't cook for a star or for any prize. I cook because I love food and what I can create with it. The best prize is for diners to leave the restaurant happy.
Over the course of these past years, what's been the biggest challenge you've faced in your restaurant?
It's been very difficult to educate consumers. Americans don't think of Mexican food as fine dining. In my restaurant, we got rid of beans, guacamole, and margaritas. Once you break with expectations, you can begin to suggest new experiences to the diner.
Do you have a favorite dish at Mexique?
No. That's like asking me which child is my favorite. Every dish has a very different soul, and I designed them all with love. Although right now I'm pretty excited, because I just created a completely black quesadilla: the tortilla is colored with squid ink, and it's filled with string cheese, corn fungus, and escargots (again, there's the French influence). Visually, it's stunning, in addition to being delicious.
What do you eat when you're in Mexico?
Some tacos al pastor. Doesn't matter which ones. But I love to eat and have my fingers covered in salsa. And if I'm at my mom's house, her chile con queso and a bit of avocado. I love simple food, but food that's done well.
Thanks so much for talking with me, Carlos!