The first Mexican chef to ever receive a Michelin star, a finalist on Top Chef season 11 – Chef Carlos Gaytán has been there, done that and seen it all. After arriving in Chicago in the 90’s from his native Mexico, Chef Gaytán quickly climbed his way up through the Chicago kitchen ranks. After working with renowned French Chef Dominique Tougne, he decided it was time to open up his own restaurant – Mexique. Here he combined French cooking techniques with his knowledge of traditional Mexican cuisine and singlehandedly created a new style of Mexican gastronomy which earned him a Michelin star the moment he least expected it. We sat down with this talented and driven culinary revolutionist to ask him about his trials, his tribulations, his unexpected success and that wall … Oh, that damn wall.
The first Mexican chef with a Michelin-starred restaurant, what went through your mind the day that call came in?
“It was a little crazy because I wasn’t too familiar with the Michelin star, I didn’t know exactly how powerful it is to have one. I was ready to close the restaurant when they called actually. It was Monday and my license was about to expire that Friday, I was upstairs in my office talking to a friend and just had to confess that business wasn’t going well and that Friday would be our last day. I had done everything I possibly could to try save the restaurant, I didn’t know what else to do, so I got on my knees and asked God to show me what was next. The restaurant was all I had, the only thing I knew how to do was cook and I had no idea what to do next but I knew God had a plan for me. The next day I woke up and went about my morning the usual way: I went to the market to shop for dinner service, then to the restaurant to start prepping and at exactly 11am I received a call. A lady asked to speak to me and I answered. I heard her introduce herself and listened to her speak about how they had been following me since the first day Mexique opened, how impressed they were with my work and how I was going to be the first Mexican chef to earn a Michelin star. I was dumbstruck. I mean, I was thankful but at the same time I had to tell this lady that my restaurant was about to close in three days. I don’t remember much else of the conversation besides hanging up and just thinking: ‘Well, let’s see what this thing will do for my business today.’”
And, what did it do?
“That evening we did nine covers, that’s it. Nine. So, I was like: ‘Okay, nothing happened with a Michelin star, great.’ We received a few phone calls of people inquiring about the star, but that was it. The next day – Wednesday – I came into the restaurant and the phone did not stop ringing. Reservation after reservation came in. By Thursday the restaurant was packed and on Friday I actually had a little bit of money to start making some down payments. I was able to stay open. And that was it.”
Mexique lived and now you even have a restaurant in Mexico. How was it to start cooking in your motherland again?
“You know what, I came to the US looking for the American dream twenty seven years ago, but really, when you’re not in your country your dream is to become successful and one day go back home to continue being successful. That’s how it was for me. I always think about people who cannot come to the US – it’s not easy getting a visa – and a lot of people want to try my food. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to become a part of this amazing gastronomic movement that’s happening in Mexico right now, to bring my food to my people. Right now, Mexico is one of the hottest countries to go eat. I was in Mexico City a few days ago on a quick layover and – because I had a few hours to burn – decided to go into the city for lunch, to Mercado de San Juan. While I was eating there were a lady from Germany and a Japanese couple from the US sitting next to me and we just casually got to talking about food. So, I was like: ‘Yeah, I think I know a little bit about Mexican cuisine. You want to join me and have a look around the market?’ They said yes and that’s what we did, they were very impressed.”
I assume you told them who you were at some point?
“[laughs] Someone else did actually. It became a little obvious when people started coming up to me yelling: ‘Hey chef! How are you?’ They figured it out pretty quickly after that.”
What did you have them try on the market?
“We tried a lot of things; we went from really great coffee, to amazing fresh seafood, to roasted goat, to all the beautiful different fruits. And of course I had to give them escamoles. Are you familiar with escamoles?”
Yup. I was tricked into eating them in Mexico City once and completely fell in love.
“They’re so good.”
So good! With all this amazing food around and having been in the US for such a long time, were you ever nervous going back to Mexico to cook?
“I don’t think so. I think I was more excited than I ever was nervous.”
How did you land on Cancun to open up shop?
“I was actually looking in Mexico City but then the opportunity came from Cancun. I always ask God what he has in store for me and this time he said Cancun first, so that’s where I went and I’m really happy about it. You have to keep an open mind in life, you have to be open to new ideas because you never know where they might take you.”
In the twenty seven years you’ve been away, do you feel Mexican Cuisine has changed a lot from what it was when you were growing up?
“Oh yeah. Over the years I’ve seen people only wanting to cook the way we did a hundred years ago and people who are constantly looking to improve and utilize all the ingredients we have in Mexico. Nowadays we have so many new ingredients, techniques and styles available to us, everything around us is constantly changing, it only makes sense that the food does too.”
You cook French-Mexican.
“Modern French with Mexican influences. You’re not going to find enchiladas on my menu. I always tell people: ‘My mother’s enchiladas are the best, how can I compete with those?’ Not gonna happen.”
Do a lot of people still ask for them though?
“People who don’t know the restaurant sometimes do, yes. They sit down, look at the menu and then look at each other knowing this is definitely not what they expected. But most people who come in know.”
Born and raised in?
Guerrero, a city nearby Acapulco, Mexico.
What did your mother and father do?
“My mother still has a little restaurant where she cooks amazing food and my father used to be a bus driver with a love for hunting on the weekends. He used to take me out into the fields and the mountains to look for deer and rabbits. When we’d get back home I would help butcher and prepare the animals. When I was fourteen I was already in charge of the barbacoa at my mother’s restaurant. I’d kill the animal, clean it and then cook it.”
Is that how you decided to become a chef?
“I think so. From the beginning I’ve always enjoyed making people happy with food. I think that’s what motivated me to become a chef.”
“Completely self-taught. Most of my flavor knowledge comes from my mother and my techniques come from working in US kitchens. I started out as a dishwasher at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago. My schedule used to run from 3 o’clock in the afternoon to 11 o’clock at night, however I would always show up at 10 in the morning to just work for free and learn. I used to ask the chef if he could hook me up with his friends to let me spend a day in their kitchens all the time, and he did. That’s how I worked my way up until I opened Mexique ten years ago.”
And then came Top Chef. You placed third in season 11, what made you decide to enter a competition like that and step into the limelight?
“There are two things I watch on TV: soccer [football, depending on where in the world you’re reading this] and Top Chef. Whenever I used to watch Top Chef I’d always compare myself to the contestants: What if I was in their shoes? What would I do with that ingredient? I was always fascinated with these crazy ideas contestants would come up with, I loved it. Then one day, out of the blue, I received an email with the question if I wanted to be part of Top Chef Season 11. I was intrigued. I asked for more information, someone gave me a call and that someone informed me I had to be available for eight weeks. I just didn’t think I could do it, eight weeks is a long time to be gone from your restaurant and for me it just seemed too long. So, I said no, about seven times. Until one day I was having lunch with my daughter and she just sort of said to me: ‘Dad, I think you should do it. Why not? We’ll get someone to help in the restaurant and we’ll make it happen. Go for it.’ And that’s what we did. I called them back, told them I was ready, willing and able and that’s how I got on Top Chef.”
Kitchen or TV studio?
“Fifty-fifty [laughs]. I mean, I prefer cooking all the time, in the end that’s what got me on TV and helped my career become what it is today. I love that you can really transmit a passion through TV, you can reach a lot of people and really inspire them to do the things you do. It’s a good feeling. But cooking will be what I’ll do for the rest of my life.”
Have you noticed a difference in your clientele since starting your TV journey?
“Yes, definitely. But you know what? It also scares people away. People tend to think that now you’re too expensive or something, when all we truly are is just a good restaurant that invites customers to come and enjoy good food.”
What is the biggest misconception about Mexican food out there you think?
“A lot of people see Mexican food as cheap fast food. They don’t understand that it’s quite the opposite. So, when people go to Mexico City and order nachos they’re blown away by the fact that it’s nowhere to be found. You’re not going to find nachos and you’re not going to find burritos, but you will find the best tacos of your life. We still need to educate people on what Mexican cuisine really is these days, unfortunately.
Speaking of education, how do you feel about the whole Trump vs immigrants thing?
“I’ve been asked about this by many people and I still don’t know if I have a clear answer. What it comes down to in the end for me is: what can he say about me? If Trump comes to me, what can he say? I’ve done everything right: I’ve opened my own restaurant, I’ve paid my taxes, I’ve created employment and I’ve given back to the community. For some reason he thinks he is against me, but I’ve worked hard to get to where I am today and so have many others with me. When I do something good it represents two countries, not just one. I have two passports, not just one. I am Mexican and I’m American. Why be against me?”
If you hadn’t become a chef, what do you think your life would look like right now?
“I’d probably be working in Acapulco somewhere teaching people how to scuba dive.”
What do you enjoy when you’re not working?
“Scuba diving [laughs]. And playing soccer with my kids.”
Did having kids influence your style of cooking at all?
“When my daughter was little I was always looking for ways to make her food look more appealing so she’d actually want to eat it, especially her breakfast. I’d play around with really creative plating, adding bright colors or even flowers sometimes, and it worked. Only now she’s become a very demanding eater because of it.
How old is she?
Oh wow, you’ve had quite some practice then.
“[Laughs] Yes, I have.”
Do you have a chef inspiration?
“I really admire Thomas Keller. I don’t know him personally but I’ve worked with a lot of people who have worked with him and everyone always tells me how humble he is and how he still cleans his own kitchen. That’s inspiring. He’s such a well-known chef, he has so many Michelin stars, for someone like him to be holding a mop sweeping and cleaning his own floors is almost unheard of. It reminds me of myself actually. This morning we had a little problem in the kitchen and I had to get in there, fix it and then clean everything up afterwards. It’s what you do and it’s what keeps you humble.”
Dream table of guests?
“I honestly don’t know. I’ve cooked for so many amazing people already; the president, famous soccer players, singers, but I think the one meal that impressed me most was for a lady who had cancer and was nearing the end of her life. She was a regular guest at the restaurant and had always enjoyed my food, over the years she’d become a dear friend of mine. One day she called me and said: ‘Carlitos, I’m very sick of the food in the hospital, can you maybe cook me something?’ Of course I said yes and I asked her what it was she wanted to eat. She answered: ’Chicken soup with rice.’ Now, you have to know that chicken soup is probably my least favorite thing to make. I don’t like soup, at all, and top of that you’ll never find rice on any of my menus – my rice has to be perfect and I don’t think I can do a perfect rice, it’s always either too soggy or too dry. So, when she asked me for soup with rice I just sent a prayer up there and asked God to help me make the best chicken soup of my life. And he did, I actually even impressed myself that day. The soup came out incredibly good and when I took it over to my friend she just loved it. It ended up being one of the last meals of her life … The whole experience really made me realize that as chefs we’re here to make people happy with the gift we have in our hands, and we have to use it. You never know who you’re going to touch with your food, that’s what gets me excited to cook.”
You know what you would want as your last meal?
“New York steak. Goats’ cheese fondue. Tomatoes.”
Nice! You had that ready to go.
“[Laughs] Yeah, I’ve thought about it a lot actually. So much so that I put it on my menu.”
Knowing rice is blacklisted, any crazy mistakes you’ve ever made in the kitchen?
“I got invited by the Michelin Guide to cook for a party once and I wanted to impress. I wanted to impress so much that I ended up creating something that just wasn’t me. I did this cold liquid mole sphere that exploded in your mouth. It was good but it didn’t work and it wasn’t me, at all. I would never make it again.”
Would this be advice you’d give a starting chef, stay true to yourself?
“I’d tell them to stay away from cooking! [Laughs] No, you just have to be aware of the fact that it’s going to take a lot of sacrifices to reach the top. You’re not going to have a lot of time for yourself and sometimes not even for your kids. For example, today I woke up at 4 o’clock in the morning, I went to church to volunteer, went to the market to shop, came to the restaurant and had to deal with the whole clean-up. Now I’m going back to the market and then around 1 or 2 o’clock this afternoon I have to be back here to start cooking for dinner service. These are long days and they’re no exception. It never stops.”
You feel you’re missing out on life sometimes?
“Yeah, a lot. It’s just difficult to have a personal life – especially when you’re known – because even when I do decide to take some time to myself and choose to go out for dinner or something, it doesn’t matter if I’m on the last table in the corner of an unknown restaurant somewhere or not, at some point someone is going recognize me and come up for a picture. That’s work. But don’t get me wrong, I’m very thankful for what I do and get to do each and every day, it’s just not always the easiest of lives to live.”
“Good question. I want to do so many things in so many different places and I get a lot of proposals to do so thrown my way on a daily bases, it’s just not up to me. Whatever God has planned for me I will do. He will show me the next opportunity that’s right for me, I have no doubt about that.”
When in Chicago visit Mexique and when near Cancun it’s Restaurant Ha‘ you want to go to. For beautiful, inspiring food pictures, behind the scenes shots and a look into Mexico’s colorful traditions in the meantime, head over to Chef Gaytán’s Instagram.
We’re also lucky enough to share one of Chef Carlos’ success recipes for some delicious and true Mexique-style mussels! Scroll on down.
1529 W Chicago Ave
T. +1 (312) 850-0288
Carretera Chetumal – Puerto Juarez Kilometro 282, Solidaridad
77710 Playa del Carmen
T. +52 (998) 881 9836
MEJILONESMarie-Thérèse Verbruggen The first Mexican chef to ever receive a Michelin star, a finalist on Top Chef season 11 - Chef Carlos Gaytán has been there, done that and seen it all. After arriving in Chicago in the 90’s from his native Mexico...
Salt & Pepper
Preparation of Sauce:
In a sauce pan add diced shallots, white wine and saffron. Reduce for 15 minutes on low fire. Add heavy cream and reduce for another 10 minutes or until you see sauce come together with heavy cream. Once together add a bit of butter in medium size squares. Finally blend and add salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste.
Preparation of Mussels:
In a large pan heat olive oil, add dry chorizo, fennel, jalapeños and mussels. Sauté for 5 minutes, then add white wine and let simmer for 2 minutes. Add sauce and serve immediately with crostini.
Chef Carlos Gaytán