How Working in Southeast LA Taught Me to Be a Better Chef
After all, any customer, regardless of their food knowledge, will recognize solid form and technique. We’ve been open for three years and still going strong.
Photos courtesy of Eddie Ruiz
When I opened my restaurant in one of the many working-class boroughs of East Los Angeles County, I had to forget almost everything I learned at cooking school or while staging at other popular restaurants and just listen to what my local customers really wanted.
I learned this when I opened up Corazón Y Miel in Bell, California, a neighborhood in southeast LA where 93 percent of its residents are Latino. Little did I know how difficult it would be to have a menu that both appealed to the locals and that would keep me excited as a budding, James Beard Award-nominated chef.
I developed my chops while working with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo and recreating their complex dishes at Animal on a daily basis. Nonetheless, I always knew that I wanted to do my own thing that reflected my Mexican-Salvadoran heritage. So my childhood friend and I took all of our savings and invested it into our own restaurant.
At first, I didn't even know how to label my own cuisine. Some people called my place a "Latin gastropub" and others called my food "modern Mexican," or the best yet, "pan-Latin." However, I would soon learn that my menu—filled with slightly refined takes on Latin classics like a canitas rillette and a burrata salad with a salsa molcajeteada—was probably more fit for West LA than East LA. All of the local food critics and diners who would come into the restaurant from out of the neighborhood loved those dishes but most of the locals did not. Some would literally come in, check out the menu, and say, "Umm no, we're not going to eat here."
When you see customers saying that in front of you and your staff, you really have to sit down and reevaluate things—no matter how many accolades you've received in the past. Do I cook the food that I want to and keep on educating people about new ingredients and flavors? Or do I do the food that will keep our doors open? I thought about this and decided to change the whole direction of the restaurant. I trained my servers to to sell things, as opposed to expecting them to assume that customers knew what was up with the menu.
My philosophy is non-stop growth, and I don't think I can grow if I only do those same three dishes for the rest of my life.
I also trained them to kindly ask our customers if they could please stay and give us moment of their time; I never gave away so many free appetizers in my life. These small gestures, along with my friend's amazing cocktails, got people in the door. For a small business that opened up without any investors, this meant the world to us. We eventually got written up by everybody, but after that wave was over, we realized that press does not always equal more business, especially in the eastside of LA, where people generally don't like change.
At the end of the day, your community is what sustains your business.
In the city of Bell, this means being OK with the fact that I will never be able to have rabbit, beef heart, or any other type of offal on the menu. It also means having absolutely no spite if my customer requests that I char the hell out of their beautiful, grass-fed skirt steak instead of serving it perfectly medium-rare. Being a chef is no different than being a servant, and the difference between a good cook and a great cook is that the former presents problems, while the latter presents solutions.
The process of educating my customers hasn't stopped ever since. This hasn't been the smoothest process, obviously. For example, take our take on a burger. Whenever I have it on the menu, it is one of our best sellers, along with other familiar items like our wild boar chilaquiles and plantain sopes. Then again, do I want Corazón Y Miel to be a burger, chilaquiles, and sopes restaurant? My short answer is no. My philosophy is non-stop growth, and I don't think I can grow if I only do those same three dishes for the rest of my life.
When we temporarily took our burger off the menu, it was complete mayhem. Customers who used to come in on a weekly basis suddenly stopped. But that is when you hope that those regulars will have to come in again, because the restaurant is the only one of its kind in a five-mile radius. Some did come back and give us another shot, and some didn't.
I might open up in a more central LA location in the future, but this adaptive way of running a restaurant has undoubtedly taught me how to be a better chef. Don't get me wrong—this way of running a restaurant is financially hard at times. I would love to have hour-long wait times like our neighbors, Culichi Town. It is what it is.
After all, any customer, regardless of their food knowledge, will recognize solid form and technique. We've been open for three years and still going strong.
As told to Javier Cabral