This is part one of my interview with Ignacio Leon, exec chef of Paxia and Los Carboncitos; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Ignacio Leon has more restaurants under his belt than years. The executive chef of Paxia (pronounced Pá-she-á) and the Los Carboncitos on Pecos at 38th Avenue is 38, and already he's worked in more than fifty kitchens.
He started young, helping his parents out at their restaurant in Mexico City, where he was born and raised. It was a fonda [inn], recalls Leon, with a tiny kitchen, family recipes and fresh produce plucked from the family farm. "I was around ten when I first stated working there, first as a dishwasher, then doing prep. And then I just started doing everything I could, because I wanted to make the family restaurant better and better," he says. After spending several years getting to know the business, he applied to culinary school at the Instituto Culinario of Mexico City, where he embarked on a three-year program. "I knew I wanted to cook for a living. That's all I've ever wanted to do," he says.
During the course of his studies, which involved five grueling days a week in the classroom, Leon competed in the World Food Culinary Championship, battling 100 chefs from more than twenty countries; he ended up as a top-twenty finalist. He also had the opportunity to go to Japan, where he spent six months cooking in a five-star restaurant. "I'm fascinated by Japanese food, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about it," he says, adding that even now, sushi is his favorite food. Japanese and Mexican cultures are similar, he notes, in that entire families often work together at a single restaurant: "Both of our cultures are all about family."
After graduating, he moved to Denver to be near the mountains -- and the snow -- and it didn't take him long to get back in the kitchen. Since moving to the Mile High City in 1997, Leon has cooked at the Denver ChopHouse; the Cheesecake Factory; Racines; Il Fornaio; Mao, the now-defunct Chinese restaurant in Cherry Creek; and P.F. Chang's China Bistro, where he was hired as part of the training team, traveling across the country to open eleven more outposts of the prolific chain, and several more restaurants.
But in 2004, he decided he wanted a restaurant of his own -- one that celebrated the cuisine of Mexico City. "When I opened our first location, Denver didn't have fresh street Mexican food -- at least not a lot of it -- and I also thought Denver needed a good restaurant that was open late. We wanted a place that cooks and servers could come to and eat once they finished their shifts," he explains. He unleashed the first Los Carboncitos at 720 Sheridan Boulevard, followed that with the West 38th Avenue location, and then added a third taqueria in Aurora. He shares ownership with his two brothers and one sister.
And while the taquerias are authentically Mexican, Leon says the biggest surprise has been a white clientele that demands heat. "I was shocked when we opened our first location, because the gringos loved our salsas -- and they're really hot," he admits. Every location goes through eight gallons of each salsa per day, and they're all scratch-made using dried chiles that Leon sources from Mexico. "Our food is inexpensive," he says, "but it's incredibly fresh, we use high-quality ingredients, we make our own corn tortillas, we don't have a microwave, and there's a ton of color on the plate, because I love the colors of food." And nothing, he notes, comes out of a can.
His success with Los Carboncitos convinced him to open Paxia last year, and while the restaurant suffered growing pains, Leon says it's found its groove. "We opened Paxia because we wanted to do an upscale restaurant with higher-end, more refined dishes from Mexico, and it was a little tough at first, but it's getting better all the time, and the neighborhood has really embraced us." His employees are just as loyal: "Our kitchen staffs have been with us for a very long time, and when someone leaves, they always come back. We're family."
In the following interview, Leon talks about a meal in Mexico that's still unmatched, the chaos that ensued on the day that Paxia opened, why stupid people don't deserve to cook in his kitchen, and his reasons for feeding the homeless.
How do you describe your food? It's modern Mexican that's still representative of the traditional cuisine you would find in various regions of Mexico. This is real Mexican food, rooted in our family recipes and cultural traditions.
Ten words to describe you: Hard-working, perfectionist, organized, clean, ambitious, demanding, creative, knowledgeable, passionate and good-humored.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Milk and cream. I love combining those two ingredients to create rich sauces; I hate dry food. I also have a tendency to add spiciness to my dishes. I joke that I have to have a jalapeño or salsa with everything I eat; there has to be something to add heat. It kills my stomach, but I just can't avoid it.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Knives are absolutely crucial, especially for presentation. A good knife makes all the difference when you're cutting fruit into shapes or cutting seafood. You need thin, sharp, flexible knives to cut those ingredients the correct way.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Any kind of sprouts, from alfalfa to bean. I can work them into any kind of dish, and luckily, I can find them just about anywhere -- at Whole Foods, Sprouts, local farmers' markets and even King Soopers.
One food you detest: Hamburgers from fast-food restaurants. They're greasy, full of empty calories and absent of nutrition. You'll never catch me eating a hamburger from McDonald's, Wendy's or any other fast-food burger chain with inferior products.
One food you can't live without: Japanese food. My first real job out of cooking school was at a five-star Japanese restaurant in Mexico City, called Daikoku. It's a very traditional restaurant that was really embraced by Japanese diners for its authenticity. It was there that I developed a real appreciation for the cuisine. I also learned a variety of techniques, from how to cook on the hibachi to the fine art of making sushi. I love sushi, and I love how healthy and fresh Japanese food is in general.
Best food trend of the year: Fresh food. I love the fact that it's no longer acceptable in quality restaurants to serve something out of a can. I was raised eating the food we grew on our farm, so the whole farm-to-fork concept really resonates with me. It's healthier, and the flavors are better when food is fresh. My hope is that this becomes the standard way we eat all the time.
Worst food trend of the year: Mexican fast food. I know Taco Bell and a few others places like it have been around forever, but it seems like there's an abundance of bad Mexican-food chains right now. I don't mind Chipotle, because you know where their food comes from and they have an open kitchen so you can see the process, but I won't support the fast-food Mexican-food restaurants that serve canned chile or cheddar cheese that's full of preservatives instead of Mexican cheese. You won't find any of those mass-produced hard taco shells in Mexico, either, and the meat they serve in these places isn't even real meat; it's the same thing McDonald's serves. That is not real Mexican food.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our molcajetes, which are basically stews made of tomatoes, garlic, jalapeños, onions and a choice of meat, seafood or a combination of both. We serve it in a "molcajete," which is a traditional mortar and pestle made of volcanic rock. It's authentic, unique and different from what Denverites have been exposed to.
Biggest menu bomb: Fresh oysters. We brought them in every other day to ensure freshness, and it was tough for us because they weren't selling well, so we would end up eating them ourselves or just throwing them away. Oysters are high-maintenance, and some people are afraid to eat them because they think they're unsafe or they just don't have a taste for them. We eventually took them off the menu after two months.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Before I attended cooking school, I did some traveling, and on one trip, while I was passing through a small town in Mexico, I got hungry and began looking for a place to eat. I met a woman who offered to cook me a meal at her home, which isn't uncommon in Mexico -- there are women in these smaller towns that just cook meals out of their homes for money. It's kind of like pop-up restaurants inside these private homes, which is possible in Mexico because they don't have the same kind of licensing restrictions we do here. She killed and cooked a wild rabbit for me on a spit over a wood fire, and she served it with a fresh salsa de molcajete and homemade corn tortillas. I was just amazed by the taste, the flavors and the whole meal. This housewife, who never went to cooking school -- who didn't have a degree -- made a meal for me that no one has ever matched.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A sushi knife...and then I lost it. The owner of Daikoku, a Japanese restaurant in Mexico City, gave it to me, and I'm sure that's where my appreciation for knives started.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? The English translation is "Tradition and History of Our Mexican Kitchen." It looks like an encyclopedia, and it's been tremendously helpful in helping me to learn about the tradition and history of Mexican food. It's where I got the gorditas de chicharrón prensado dish, which is on the Los Carboncitos menu.
Favorite childhood food memory: I have two: My dad had a really large farm until I was about nine years old, so I grew up learning how to cultivate different types of fruits and vegetables. The experience taught me to appreciate different types of food and, more important, where our food comes from. I also loved the beef stew my mom used to make for my family. My brothers and I acquired our love of cooking from her.
Favorite junk food: Pizza. I can have anything on a pizza except pineapple. I confess that I've never been fond of that flavor combination.
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If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd be a lawyer or a youth coach. I've always been interested in coaching homeless children, and I think playing sports is a great outlet and distraction. In Mexico, once I started working and making money, I would bring shoes and other supplies to the homeless kids in the neighborhood. It brought them so much joy and it was so gratifying that I always thought helping on a larger scale would've been something I'd be interested in exploring as a career.