Top Chefs Interviews: Jorge Vallejo on His Career, Food Sustainability and Quintonil Success
Chef Jorge Vallejo is the Head Chef of Quintonil, an amazing restaurant in Mexico City that’s frequently listed among the world’s best. We sat down with Jorge to talk about his career, signature dishes, food sustainability and advice for aspiring chefs.
1. What inspired you to become a chef?
The home in which I grew up was more or less the average of the middle class in Mexico: Women are the ones who mainly made the food with recipes that come from several generations.
Since I was very young, the aromas, textures and combinations of homemade dishes of my grandmother and mother invaded my spirit to the point of wanting to achieve what they did.
As a young man, I was torn between being a veterinarian and a cook, but in the end I took the most creative path. The human being seeks happiness sitting at a table, and I wanted to contribute with that happiness.
2. You studied at the Ambrosia Centro Culinario. How helpful were your studies to jump start your Chef career?
Studying is always useful. It prepares you and gives you technical tools and gives mental structure.
However, another career begins after graduation. You have to work to live and you have to work on what you like. Having that combination is almost a privilege and that is achieved, among other things, by working hard, although we should not ignore luck. Sometimes you have to be a little superstitious.
3. Do you recommend a formal training for someone who wants to become a chef?
Of course. The more resources you have, the more possibilities, and I do not mean economic resources, but knowledge. As I said above, academic training is important, but I think that in order to be good at what you do, you need intelligence, introspection, a lot of self-criticism and being attentive to what happens around you.
Learn from failures and overcome them, because surely there will be many, of mistakes. Start again if things go wrong. We must have the academic tools and dominate the techniques, but above all we have to be sensitive and open to experience, because this is what always surprises us and the best teacher, if we are willing to learn.
4. What is your signature dish or a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking?
I have been asked this for several years and I think I have many favorite dishes now.
What I like to prepare most are vegetables, fish and seafood, so my menus are very fond of these ingredients. Many diners in Mexico still wait as a star dish or “main” to be protein, especially meat.
I like to surprise that expectation with a dish with vegetables, fruits and mole sauce, for example. It is a simple dish and exquisite, but not easy. The mole sauce can contain more than 30 ingredients.
5. Quintonil is regarded as one of the best restaurants in Latin America. What was the most important thing you did to get there?
In Quintonil we have worked hard since the first day we opened and we have internalized the idea of wanting excellence. It is not for me to say whether we are or not, I have to work to achieve a delicious menu, which at the same time is an interlocutor with the diner and talks about the possibility of ingredients, tradition and environmental concerns of Quintonil.
The recognitions work for me as a reminder that we are on the right path, that people like what we do and what we propose, but at the same time it raises many demands for the future. You know what they say: it’s not hard to get there, it’s hard to stay, or something like that…
6. How do you stay relevant in a very competitive restaurant industry?
There are many factors. The first one I already mentioned: it is the incessant work of all the personnel, from the one who polishes the glasses in the first hours of the morning until the one who closes the door in the late hours of the night. Every day is a race with many goals that involves cleaning, choosing the best product of the day; cut the onions, polish the shoes, clean the huauzontles, adjust the collar of the shirt, etc.
This balance between the kitchen and the living room, the service and the cuisine and makes you eat delicious and you feel at home at the same time:
Being satisfied at the door while we help you put on your coat. I mean that everything plays at the same time and everything is important; Achieving the balance and making it better every day is what I think makes us stay in the competition, both in Mexico and worldwide.
7. What sets apart an extraordinary chef from the pack?
I would not talk about the chef as such. I would say that a human being is remarkable because he acquires a way of being, living and working that he has acquired over time and is his own, and that he shares with others.
It seems to me that the extraordinary is a product of discipline, talent and some luck. There are extraordinary human beings who are not known and others who are not so great and everyone knows about them. It’s a mystery.
8. What is one common mistake you see other chefs or cooks making in the kitchen?
Of errors I could only speak of mine. But I would say that we cooks should not let ourselves be carried away by that vanity that is now fashionable in some circles; in spectacular staging but with little substance at the culinary level.
Escape that vanity and concentrate on what we know how to do, which is cooking.
9. Where do you source your produce and ingredients for your restaurants? Can you please provide some specific examples?
Chefs today will have these dilemmas: what can I do as a cook to improve the environment?
Chefs today will have these dilemmas: what can I do as a cook to improve the environment? For example, in Quintonil we look for suppliers in specialized farms for the seafood we serve. The project that comes from the trout that we serve helps protect the forest of the Monarch butterfly. The same with all the fishing that we acquired, we seek that its extraction does not harm the ecosystem and favor the communities.
Now I speak of the seas, but the same thing happens with the earth. Mexico has products of first quality, in each region and an unthinkably large cupboard. We have almost all ecosystems. But the concern now is not only why it contains the best flavor and freshness, but how to take it from the earth without compromising its environment …
10. Many chefs struggle with a healthy work and life balance? What is your take on this?
Well, I could not disagree, although I do not know if I ever find a way to have a “healthy job” … but my lifestyle is healthy; I exercise, I eat well and every day I care more for my environment, especially now that I have a daughter and the future for me already makes much more sense, because she will live there and grow there.
It is a chain: a balanced life brings a balance in our environment and if we do it together, the future looks less gloomy. It is difficult to think with responsibility in the future, because the moment is lived, but if we do not do it for us, we must do it for the generations that come.
11. What are your favorite cookbooks?
– “La cocina de los Valientes”, Pau Arenós
– A Day at elBulli, Ferran and Albert Adria and Juli Soler
12. What advice would you give someone who wants to become a chef?
Get up early, repeat the techniques until you cannot move your hands or feet.
To forget fame and awards. Get up early, repeat the techniques until you cannot move your hands or feet. Read about our ancestors. To travel, even as a stowaway; that visit a milpa.
To ask questions all the time, does not contain curiosity. Great chefs are wiser than experts in the art. To be observant and learn to serve; Service is very important, to look at people to understand them and know what they want and what they like.
Stay in touch with Jorge and his crew on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. Try out some of his remarkable dishes by checking out his roasted eggplant recipe and fig leaf gourds in homemade mole sauce that Jorge shared with Chef’s Pencil.
Or better, pay Jorge a visit at Quintonil, in Mexico’s capital city, to enjoy a treat right from the master.