These last nights of Hanukkah call for interviewing a chef who celebrates the Festival of Lights. So we rang up Julian Medina, chef of Toloache and Yerba Buena, to learn which side of the dreidel he was on: latke or sufganiyot.
You were raised Catholic but converted to Judaism, correct? What made you convert?
My wife is Jewish, and so I converted to get married but also because I really wanted to.
What are some of your favorite Jewish culinary traditions?
I love Hanukkah. It’s one of my favorite holidays because fried food is always fun and I think we have a lot of similarities with the Mexican way of cooking. Latkes are one of my signature dishes that I created for the holiday, which I serve with Mexican dipping sauces.
Do you think there are similarities between traditional Jewish cuisine and Mexican cuisine?
There are a lot of similarities, like in the peppers and spices we use, and in the herbs and grains as well. We have similarities but also variety. I combine Mexican influences into each holiday and make them my own and that’s what I love about it.
You were born in Mexico City. How do you think food culture differs between there and New York?
Well, Mexico is becoming a culinary mecca. Everyone wants to be a chef in Mexico now. It’s unlike 15 years ago when there were maybe one or two culinary schools. In Mexico, everyone also eats everything from all parts of the animal to bugs and stuff. Mexico City is up there with all the meccas of cooking, so it’s just a matter of different ingredients and preparations. But here in New York City you can find anything — any type of cuisine, any time of the night. In Mexico we have lots of Chinese people because it’s a mixed culture, but we don’t have a Chinese takeout restaurant on every corner.
Tell me about some of the Jewish-Mexican dishes on Toloache’s menu.
The latke trio [potato jalapeno with horseradish crema, zucchini with tomatillo apple salsa, and Mexican ricotta with chipotle and agave nectar] is my signature dish for Hanukkah. But the brisket taco is my favorite.
How will you be celebrating the last night of Hanukkah?
I am going to be working. I lit the candles last night at home with my family but I’m at work tonight and tomorrow.
Are you a latke man or a sufganiyot (jelly doughnut) man?
I ate a lot of latkes yesterday, so for tonight I’m going to go with sufangiyot. I need some sugar.
Check back in tomorrow when Julian dishes about Toloache Taqueria, opening Thursday.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 7, 2010