Yesterday, we talked with The Wright’s executive chef Rodolfo Contreras about growing up in his mother’s Mexico City kitchen, his cooking style, and why most New York restaurants disappoint him.
Today, in the second half of the interview, Contreras lets us in on his path from busboy to executive chef; what it was like to be a guy from Mexico City in a French kitchen a decade ago; his first taste memory; and the most overrated ingredient in use today.
What foods from Mexico City do you miss in particular?
Well, basically all the foods I used to eat in Mexico are not available here. And like I say, I don’t trust the restaurants, because I really don’t know what they cook in. I definitely miss my mother’s way of cooking. You can find some of the ingredients–in New York you can find everything–but it is not worth it to cook for one or two people at home. I don’t have time anyway. But I miss the food my mother cooks.
What’s your earliest taste memory, the first thing you remember eating?
Well, because we came from a very poor family, my father used to make homemade cakes with very basic ingredients: butter, cream, eggs, and leftover bread that he bought from the bakery. He made cake from that bread. To me, the skill he had to make cake from leftovers…I remember the taste, the flavor of that cake. I remember him baking it at six or seven in the afternoon, and we would eat it at night. I come from a family that cooks: My mother and father both like to cook.
You worked your way up from busboy to executive chef. It must have been difficult.
Yeah, at first I was working as a waiter and busboy. But I don’t like to smile very much, so being in the dining room, it was very difficult because you are smiling all the time. And I was always critical of the food coming from the kitchen–I thought I could do better than that.
So I went to the French Culinary Institute. It was very hard to move from bottom to top, but I was very aggressive. From being a line cook to being a chef for Bouley, it took me six to eight years. It’s not easy, not everyone makes it to be a chef. A lot of guys never make it to the top.
Did you find that people were prejudiced against you because of your background?
Definitely, I worked in French restaurants, and yes. I love that chefs from Spain opened the doors for all of us from all over the world. So now it’s different, but 10 years ago, in a French or Austrian restaurant, it was difficult to belong in that kind of kitchen. You know, we have the skills: We can cook the food. But we have to prove ourselves twice because we are from another country. We have to work harder. I’m not complaining, but it’s disappointing.
Are there any places at all in, say, Brooklyn or Queens, that you like for Mexican food?
I really don’t go out to eat. There are a couple of places in Astoria, which are not really restaurants, more delis that also sell Mexican food. Most of the Mexican restaurants here are not really authentic Mexican, because it’s not easy to make. You need real skills.
What’s the most overrated ingredient that you see everywhere?
I feel that most of the chefs using microgreens put it on every single plate. I use chervil for finishing some fish or meat, and that one I like to use. So I use microgreens, but only in dishes that I think needs them. One or two dishes, no more than that.
What’s in your refrigerator at home?
I don’t have a lot of food in my refrigerator because I don’t cook at home. I have slices of fresh ham, turkey, and bread. Not many things. And sparkling and flat water, that’s about it. That way I don’t have to clean the refrigerator. I open it about once a week.