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A conversation with Chef Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil, Mexico City

With Jorge Vallejo at Quintonil, Mexico City
Photo credit Alexandra Flores

Chef Jorge Vallejo along with his wife Alexandra operates the Quintonil restaurant in Mexico City. Vallejo has spent time in kitchens of cruise ships, hotels like St Regis, Condessa DF and overseas. Before opening Quintonil in 2012 the couple worked at Pujol for Enrique Olvera, the famed Mexican chef who put Mexico on the international culinary scene.

Vallejo creates a very contemporary Mexican cuisine using forgotten ingredients, grains and herbs such as amaranth or quintonil in Spanish, after which the restaurant is named. Vallejo's dishes while new in their approach reference traditional dishes like chilacoyota squash with a mole or bitter herbs with a bright orange sauce and local cheese, his signature dish that he demonstrated at Mesamerica last May.

Alexandra trained in Switzerland and then handled the front of the house at Pujol, and now she runs the Quintonil dining room with aplomb. The understated restaurant with a small dining room and courtyard adjacent to the compact kitchen is located in the upscale Polanco neighborhood of the city. At the first ever 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America 2013 event in September, Quintonil won the #22 spot, a laudable feat for this young duo.

Questions for Vallejo:

What came first the love story or the dream of opening the restaurant together?
Definitely the love story. We both met while working together at Pujol. Enrique didn't know that we were dating for months, he found out much later, and Enrique was my best man at our wedding.

Is there anything you find stressful about working together?
Sometimes it is hard but we are very passionate about what we do. We are a very good team, we respect each other and take decisions together and the share the risks as well. As a couple we have the same goals.

At what age did you enter the kitchen and what was the first dish you cooked by yourself?
I started cooking when I was 16 years old as an assistant cook in a tiny restaurant with a staff of three people in the kitchen. One day the chef and his son the other cook quit their jobs and I took over the responsibility of the kitchen for one week while we looked around to find more cooks . The restaurant had a prix fix menu this changed every day so initially I cooked what I had learnt from the previous chef. Later I started to cook my own food of course but in that experience I realized that cooking is what I want to and will do for the rest of my life.

What is your philosophy of cuisine?
To do my best every day, work in a clean kitchen, work hard, and with speed.

What are the most important qualities that young people entering this profession must have?
I think first discipline, then order and finally always to be hungry to learn more. You need to be very focused if this is the life you want because it is a very hard life.

From your experience do you think it is important to train at culinary school?
It is good if you can learn in school to do things in the right way, but I feel it is important to work in a professional kitchen at the same time in order to learn practically. That was what I did since in this way you challenge yourself every day.

What is your most significant food memory from your childhood?
Each day that I spent with my grandmother it was a day to enjoy good food no matter if it was fancy or not. I learned that you need to cook and eat good food every day otherwise life is not worth anything.

What is your favorite time of the year in the region where you live and work?
I love the period from July until September and when mushrooms are in season.

You had the good fortune to train with chefs such as Olvera and Redzepi however how do you define your particular style of cuisine?
I like to think that my particular style of cooking comes from my pride in being a Mexican , specifically a contemporary Mexican citizen, so I attempt to reflect this in my way of cooking using native products, paying attention to the past but heading towards the present.

Which peers are your ideals or role models?
Enrique is my mentor, and Rene Redzepi is also a chef that I learned a lot from when I was at Noma, even now he is very supportive of and gives me great advice when I approach him.

What is it that you want to convey to your diners with your plates and what reaction are you aiming for?
I try to speak to them through my dishes to be very honest in my thoughts and in my process of cooking the dish. I always want to make good food in order to make people happy. I want to remind fellow Mexicans of our history and who we are, and I want to make people from other country's realize this and to be surprised to say Wow! This is Mexico!

How do you deal with guests who do not appreciate your presentations? Do you try to modify things to their tastes?
In food it is very difficult to give all the people what they want, at Quintonil I like to think that people come to our restaurant and allow us to cook for them with liberty.

You are a contemporary visionist in the kitchen, what inspires you every day?
I try to challenge myself every day , to be better with my team and make them better, thinking about good food inspires me, making our customers our friends inspires me. I think in cooking you need to like to give and share and that is my inspiration.

What is your definition of 'taste'?
It is a way of life and I live for the taste, it is the possibility to evoke emotions.

What is your favorite product to work with?
For me it is important to cook with the best products that I can find, it doesn't matter if it is very expensive (though I don't like to use expensive stuff) they just need to be the best quality.

Which two other cuisines do you enjoy besides Mexican?
I love Indian and Japanese cuisines.

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