Pablo Salas, the Executive Chef/Owner of the highly regarded Amaranta restaurant in Toluca, Mexico, classifies his cooking as Mexiquense. Salas is also a delegate for the Conservatory of Mexican Gastronomic Culture (CCGM) the agency in charge of promoting Mexican cuisine designated by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
We met at Mesamerica 2013 in Mexico City for the first time and in full disclosure all because of a little piglet that was his co presenter on stage. All those present backstage conjectured over the source of the eerie squealing emanating from the direction of the BlackBerry auditorium during the conference. Then lo and behold Salas strode into the press room with his partner in crime (the pig) tucked under his arm to the amusement of all the chefs and reporters backstage. In a conversation about numerous topics (like tattoos, of which he has many) with this 33 year old, his passion for cuisine was very evident.
Where are you from and at what age did you begin your culinary journey?
I’m from Toluca, State Of Mexico, the capital city from the state that surrounds all of Mexico City. Professionally I started cooking at 16 while studying an Associate Degree in Culinary Arts, mostly at banquets, but the real culinary journey began when I was 10 at home with my mom Veronica’s cooking
Who encouraged you or influenced you to join this profession?
Definitely my mom. I loved to see her cooking, to taste and help with everything I could, mostly chopping onions, cleaning peppers, washing vegetables and those simple things. My favorite dish that she cooks is her “cerdo con verdolagas” (pork chops in green tomato sauce with watercress) and nowadays I cook it in my way but taking her recipe as a reference. I hope someday I can reach that deliciousness! My whole family has always been very supportive of my choice of profession. I owe them a lot for being always there for me.
Organic cooking has become a buzz word and it is becoming important in the restaurant culture. Why is it so important for you?
FLAVOR. Flavor is basically what I like about food and cooking. I think we all do, right? Most organic products are richer in flavor, aroma, color, tenderness, and freshness. It’s also important to help the small producers and promote fair trade, but I wouldn't be that interested in organic stuff if flavor wasn’t improved by the way they’re produced.
What is the most distinctive feature of your cuisine?
My Mexican cuisine focuses on dishes, ingredients, and ancestral customs from my hometown: the State of Mexico. But I like to give them a little switch around in the way they’re prepared, plated and in the products I use.
I like to keep it simple by not using too many ingredients in a recipe. I like to serve richly flavored food cooked in the most perfect way in my possibilities: in the right temperature, doneness, texture, color and appearance.
Do Mesamerica and other such food events help in drawing international attention to your part of the world, and how?
Yes it does. It helps mainly by promoting the REAL Mexican food or the nearest to the real one, not those silly Taco Bell tacos, burritos, “tortilla” chips and other most commercial dishes. Mexican food is gaining recognition as a complete traditional one, with many different sub-regions, ingredients and recipes as Chinese cuisine has and also is starting to promote its cuisine as one that can be served at a fine dining restaurant in any country.
How do new plates and recipes evolve in your kitchen? And what inspires your cooking?
I try to visit a new municipality from the State of Mexico once in a while. I make little scouting sessions where I meet lots of people who are involved in any produce (vegetables, cheeses, mezcal, trouts, pork, fruits, charcuterie), make a typical dish or are somehow connected to ethnic groups and from which I inspire my cooking.
That’s the whole base. The next step is to make some cuisine tryouts in which I use some modern techniques I have learned through time.
Name five young chefs that you admire or who you think are going to be very successful?
Enrique Olvera (Pujol, DF), Diego Hernández (Ensenada), Jorge Vallejo (Quintonil, DF), Virgilio Martínez (Central, Lima), Eduardo García (Máximo Bistrot, DF) and Joshua Skenes (Saison, SF).
Which kitchens have you worked or staged in since you began your career?
I had the good fortune to start up my own restaurant and projects while being very young. I’m 33 and I have worked for myself since I was 22 so I haven’t had enough time to make any cooking stages.
If I asked you to name three gods of cuisine who would you include?
Pork, salt, and manzano pepper.
What is your pet peeve about restaurant menus?
I don’t like places where you’re expected to eat the way chefs want you to. For example, even though I love medium rare meat, I think it’s disrespectful where waiters or even chefs are mean to you when you want your steak well done. Restaurants are experimentation places where we like to make things unusual or where we try to take eating to a new level but we cannot fight our customers in any way. Never. It’s selfish and stubborn.
You may always suggest how to do it but everyone has the free will to do it in their own way and they cannot be judged.
Tell me about your perception of the future of regional Mexican cuisine?
It’s gaining recognition but also is getting somehow “saved” by young cooks. For many years Mexicans have tried to imitate foreign trends and in cooking I find we’re finally getting united by Mexican pride, but taking it responsibly, with true commitment and interest in promote Mexican cuisines as one. It doesn’t matter if they are southern, northern or central Mexico dishes; neither does it if it is traditional or modern cooking: it’s all Mexican cuisine.
How do you define this cuisine in simple terms?
Are there other cuisines besides your own that you want to explore?
Not really. I just try to stay updated by exploring new techniques from global cuisine and then apply them to the cuisine from the State Of Mexico. (Salas is constantly updating his cuisine and recently his restaurant as well)
Where do you travel for vacation? What would be your dream vacation?
I constantly travel to the US; in fact I lived there for a short time. Cooking is my passion but my second is eating. I will love to travel to Japan for a month or two and just eat everything I can.
Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
I try not to think about it. I’d love to still be running Amaranta plus any extra project that may come.
Any American chefs that you admire?
Many chefs like Daniel Boulud, Joshua Skenes, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Patterson, and Rick Bayless mainly. But also Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz and Daniel Humm.
The weirdest ingredient you have cooked with?
Depends on weird to whom. They’re not weird for me, but for most people they are like carp roe, sweetbreads, spinal cord, tripe, intestines, blood sausage, pork feet, frog, tongue, ears, etc. They’re all on Amaranta’s menu, or have been.
Your favorite music or band?
I’m really into hip hop: Dr. Dre (my dog’s called Dre, by the way), Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, and Wiz Khalifa are my favorite.
How do you react to other chefs copying your plates or ideas?
It’s a mere honor. It’s something I’m grateful for because it tells me I’m doing things right, worth copying.
What is your favorite food and where do you go for it?
Tacos. I love tacos. I’m a street food guy.
Your favorite city in the US?
I love California for all the good eating everywhere and at any level. I truly love L.A. and San Diego because its lifestyle, diversity and openness (and tattoo shops) drive me crazy!