Years after his humble beginning in the United States, Mexican chef Carlos Gaytan still calls on his classical French training to help him reimagine Mexican gastronomy. His restaurant will be participating in Chicago’s French Restaurant Week through July 23.
From a dishwasher to the first Mexican chef to be awarded a Michelin star, Carlos Gaytan’s journey to success does not mean that he’s forgotten all the things he’s learned on the way. Even the loss of that star has not deterred the chef’s determination to breathe new life in Mexican gastronomy by applying new ideas and techniques, many of which he learned from French masters.
Born in a small town near Acapulco 46 years ago, Gaytan moved to the United States and learned to cook by offering to work early hours without pay in the kitchen where he was washing dishes. After climbing up through Chicago restaurants and eventually impressing a group of French chefs with a dinner he prepared for visiting diplomats, he began to train under Dominique Tougne, the chef de cuisine at the now-closed Bistro 110. In 2008, Gaytan opened Mexique in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago to serve a « modern take on Mexican cuisine with a French influence ».
France-Amérique: Besides French recipes, what lessons have you learned from French cooking?
Carlos Gaytan: French chefs taught me the importance of walking in the market and looking at ingredients. I go to the market every day and buy whatever I think is interesting, fresh and in season. This keeps my chefs motivated and creative. In Mexico, cooking is a need, because we have to eat. French chefs, however, taught me that cooking can be a career, something to make people happy. That’s what I now apply in my Mexican cuisine.
How do you mix the French and Mexican styles in your cooking?
I have always wanted to recreate Mexican gastronomy and do it better than what we already had. I love traditional Mexican cuisine but we can get better if we apply new ingredients and techniques. For example, Mexican steaks are really thin and the meat always has to be well done. I don’t want to do that, I want people to experience juicy red, medium steak with a beautiful sauce. I also do a steak with goat cheese fondue. Goat cheese fondue is French but I incorporate Mexican spices. I use shallots with white wine, heavy cream and chipotle. Sometimes I do French onion soup the traditional way but incorporate roasted poblano peppers. People go crazy for it. They say things like, “I’ve been eating onion soup in France and other parts of the world, but this is the best.”
Was it challenging being Mexican when you were training in and running French restaurants?
Yes, it was weird. People would want to talk to the chef and start talking to me in French when I couldn’t speak a word of French. It was not comfortable for me. But now people know I’m the Mexican guy with a lot of French influence!
1529 West Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622