This is part one of my interview with Arnold Rubio, exec chef of Tamayo; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Arnold Rubio's smile is infectious, and it's all because of Richard Sandoval, the New York-based chef and restaurateur who owns Tamayo (and numerous other restaurants in Colorado and around the world), the modern Mexican restaurant in Larimer Square where Rubio has wielded knives for the past ten years. "Richard inspires me," says Rubio. "If you want to work -- it doesn't matter who you are or where you're from -- and there's an opportunity available, Richard will give you a job."
Born in San Miguel, Rubio lost his father at a young age, and El Salvador wasn't the kind of country that was particularly desirable for a single mother raising a family. "The Salvadoran Civil War was going on, and you never knew what kind of violence was going to erupt next," he recalls, "so my mom moved us to Mexico after my father died, with the eventual goal of moving to the United States for a better life." In Mexico, Rubio spent the majority of his time on his grandfather's more tranquil farm, which is where he learned how to cook. "My grandfather grew tons of vegetables, plus we had some chickens and cows, and my mom and grandmother were always making fresh tortillas -- I loved playing with the masa -- and cheeses, like queso fresco from the cow's milk," he remembers.
Rubio and his family eventually made it across the border to Houston, where he had aunts and uncles, along with a brother who was working as a line cook at a Mexican restaurant. "He got me a job as a busboy, and that's when I first became really interested in playing with food," says Rubio, who adds that he was living with friends who were "always cooking the most amazing soups, tacos, enchiladas and Mexican sandwiches."
After two years as a dish monkey, Rubio landed a gig on the line at Pappasito's Cantina, part of the restaurant group that also owns Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen and dozens of other joints. After "learning all the basic fundamentals of cooking," he became the chief chile head behind the chain's salsas and soups. "It was a great eight years, and I left with a really good grasp of techniques, flavors and the balance of flavors," says Rubio, who followed one of his chefs to Denver. Together they opened Señorita's Cantina in LoDo (the space now houses Venice), but when it closed after just a year, the chef for whom Rubio was working returned to Houston. Rubio, though, was happy to leave that city in the dust. "I wasn't really that enamored of Houston, but I loved the climate, the people and the cleanliness of Denver, so I wanted to stay and make another opportunity for myself," he explains.
Just as the Cantina closed, Tamayo was gearing up to open. "I wanted to cook at a Mexican restaurant and walked into Tamayo while they were building it," says Rubio, who dropped off an application. It took some perseverance on his part to bag a job: "They kept telling me to come back tomorrow...and then the next day...and the next day -- but I was finally hired as a line cook, working next to Sean Yontz," he says. Three months later, he was offered the junior sous-chef spot. When Yontz left, Rubio secured the sous-chef position, and then, when the executive chef moved to another Sandoval restaurant in Dubai, Rubio became Sandoval's right-hand man. "I have such an intense passion for cooking and Mexican cuisine, and working for Richard is one of the most amazing things I've ever done in my life," says Rubio, who in the following interview showers love on his wife's gorditas, hints that he may add grasshoppers to his menu, and warns that if you want to work in his kitchen, you'd better be a neat freak.
How do you describe your food? I love creating food that personifies the traditional style of Mexican cooking -- and introducing people to what that truly is. I find that the general perception of Mexican food tends to be simplified, when in actuality it's very complex. I pride myself on showing the diversity of Mexican cuisine, as well as the huge range in flavors that make up that cuisine.
Ten words to describe you: Family man, humorous, loving, dedicated, ethical, driven, artistic, loyal and candid.
What are your ingredient obsessions? When it comes to playing with food, chiles are by far my favorite ingredients. I like them dry or fresh, and every flavor imaginable is possible by mixing the right combination of chiles: spicy, sweet, salty, earthy, vegetal or smoky. One of the ways I stay true to Tamayo's traditional Mexican food is to use chiles to create rubs and sauces. I really enjoy discovering new flavors.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I have tons of favorites, but my go-to gadget is definitely my Vitamix blender, which I can't live without. I can't function in the kitchen without my knives, either, especially my Misono knife; I use it for everything and always have it close by.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: We love cheese, and our queso campesino is made here in Denver by local dairy ranchers, who produce beautiful Mexican cheeses that I use whenever I can.
One ingredient that you won't touch: There's not much I don't like, but I guess I'd have to say something strange, like snake. I wouldn't eat snake.
One food you detest: Goat cheese is very unappealing to me. I probably shouldn't say that, since we serve it on Tamayo's menu, but I can't stand the texture or the flavor of goat cheese.
One food you can't live without: Corn tortillas. We source our corn tortillas from Colorado Tortilla Company, and they're incredibly tasty and fantastic. I eat a few with every meal -- at least two or three times a day.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: Being from El Salvador, I'd love to see more unique ethnic restaurants. I haven't seen authentic El Salvadorean food in Colorado yet, and I wish that would change, because that food is just amazing.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: I'm a traditional chef and don't really follow trends. If chefs consistently serve great-tasting food with fresh ingredients, trends aren't necessary. Chefs should go back to the basics.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Social media. A few months ago, we committed to posting images of our food and cocktails every single day on Facebook and Twitter. We love to hear customer feedback on our delicious food, and plate presentation is very important to us, and we have a lot of fun with it. Our pork carnitas are proof of that; they're colorful and really beautiful.
What's your fantasy splurge? A relaxing trip to the beach, which is where my family and I go whenever I can take a break from the kitchen. I'm fortunate to have a fantasy splurge that's achievable and that we do often.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? I often use cookbooks to spark creative ideas in my kitchen, but I don't necessarily use the recipes... unless they're from Richard. I really like Ignacio Urquiza's photography, which you can find in a lot of Mexican cookbooks.
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What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Last year, Richard remodeled Tamayo's interior and redid the entire kitchen. Going from a twelve-year-old kitchen to a brand-new one has been like graduating from a beat-up pickup truck to a Ferrari. The staff and I love it.
Weirdest customer request: We often have guests requesting insane spice levels. I'm not opposed to spicy food, but when you start eating my habanero paste and raw habaneros with your meal, you might be crossing the line. I typically just taste dabs of our spicy pastes, and even then I sometimes have repercussions, but if you can handle it, more power to you.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Fried grasshoppers. They're pretty common in many parts of Mexico, and when they're fried up, they can be pretty tasty. They have a smoky, earthy flavor with a crispy texture. We're thinking about adding a traditional Oaxacan guacamole topped with fried grasshoppers to our menu this summer. Stay tuned.
What's in the pipeline? We've changed so much at Tamayo since February. Seventy-five percent of the menu was updated and we upgraded all of our plating, so it's been a big transition but worth the effort, especially since the reviews from our diners have been so positive. And we recently added a $35 weekend brunch that happens to be bottomless, and the best part is that the portions are small so diners can try a lot of different dishes. I'm also planning a vacation...to the beach.