This is part one of Lori Midson's Q&A with Roberto Diaz, the executive chef of Mezcal. Part two of that interview will run tomorrow.
To celebrate Mexican Independence Day last week, Roberto Diaz shimmied to the upbeat tempos of a roving mariachi band while feeding oyster shooters and al pastor tacos to a packed house at Mezcal, the rollicking Mexican cantina whose kitchen he's commanded for the past nine months after taking the reins from Sean Yontz, now exec chef/co-owner of El Diablo. "Feeding people is my passion," says Diaz, who was born in Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico. And cooking is what fuels him.
"I was raised on a farm, with horses, chickens, pigs and cows -- everything that you can find on a farm -- and I grew up in a family that cooked all the time. My mom and aunt did all the cooking, and it was always something that I wanted to be involved in," explains Diaz, who's also a whiz with numbers, a leather maker -- if you're in the market for a saddle, he's your guy -- and a formidable bull roper.
While studying accounting in Mexico, Diaz would spend his vacations here in Denver, where his sister lived, working in various kitchens, including the now defunct Mel's Bar and Grill; the former Brasserie Z, where he did time with Kevin Taylor; and Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, where he was sous chef for two years. "The executive chef was constantly mad, so I eventually left," says Diaz. He landed at Tamayo as a line cook, working for Yontz, and then worked for Yontz again at Vega (also gone), before Yontz, who was opening Mezcal, offered him the opportunity to be the head chef there. And when Yontz moved on, Diaz stayed at Mezcal. "Things have changed a lot for the better over the last year, including the fact that I finally have a walk-in, which has made life a lot easier," he says, "I love having my own kitchen, playing with flavors, using fresh ingredients and creating new recipes, a lot of which are family recipes. I want people to come here and have an authentic Mexican food experience, and I think we've been able to create that."
In the following interview, Diaz, who's in the throes of creating a new menu that will include, among other things, several dishes incorporating Mexican chocolate, talks about his role in the kitchen, a farm in Brighton that's turning out awesome carnitas, and why lard is lord.
Six words to describe your food: Authentic, traditional, loving, homemade, spicy and unique.
Ten words to describe you: Mexican, fearless, handcrafted, leader, family man, inspired, spiritual, grateful, risk-taker and good-looking. I think that's thirteen words, but I was told I had to get good-looking in there.
Culinary inspirations: My mother, Rosa Raygoza, and my aunt, Ramona Diaz. They spent hours cooking, whether it was for everyday meals or special occasions, and they were really passionate about the food they made for their families and guests. I fondly remember the meals that they cooked and the large groups of people -- sometimes as many as thirty -- who shared in the feasts. We'd have pollo en pipián, chiles rellenos, empanadas, enchiladas montadas, and we had our own pigs and chickens that we'd slaughter, so we'd do chicharrones and carnitas, too.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I'm very fortunate to have had the opportunity to help out those who haven't been given as much as I have -- namely the guys in the kitchen -- by donating my time and my experience teaching them the ropes. It's a great thing to use my creative abilities to cook for others. Giving these guys the opportunity to become cooks...they're so thankful. I can count on every single one of the guys in my kitchen.
Favorite ingredient: Chiles, of course. They're the most important ingredient in my food. There are so many ingredients that are used in Mexican cooking, but none are as special -- or as spicy -- as chiles. I try to use only the best in every dish on my menus. Sergio Ponze, who's a family member, drives a 2008 white Chevy pickup truck from Nuevo Casas Grandes in Mexico to the restaurant a few times a year to unload huge bags of dried chiles -- dried guajillo chiles, chipotle chiles, chile d'arbol and dark-red chile morita. My food -- our food at Mezcal -- is all the better for it.
Best recent food find: There's this tent out on a farm in Brighton that has the best carnitas in the world. Seriously, I have never, ever tasted carnitas as delicious as these. I think that Rancho Diamante Negro is the name of the place. They slaughter all the animals on Saturday night and start cooking on Sunday, and to rev things up, they have a DJ early in the morning and bring in bands in the afternoon. It's really amazing.
Most overrated ingredient: Tomatoes. I'm not a big fan of them myself, but it seems like everyone uses them in everything. I wish there was a different fruit to substitute for tomatoes -- and, yes, a tomato is a fruit. Google it.
Most underrated ingredient: Huitlacoche, a fungus that grows in corn. Lots of people don't understand how to cook with it, but it's a really interesting addition to many dishes, and it can be used in many different cuisines, not just Mexican food. I love the flavor.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I love going to the local farmers' market and finding seasonal veggies and meats that I can use at the restaurant. I usually find a great special menu item to feature when I have enough time to really search out the best. Squash blossoms, when they're in season, are my favorite; they just have an amazingly buttery taste in the mouth.
One food you detest: Salads, veggies or anything else that doesn't have lard in it. I don't like salads at all. If it doesn't have fat in it, it's not good.
One food you can't live without: Pinto beans. It's a staple in a lot of Mexican dishes and on down to the Central and South American countries. They were always on our table at home for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Don't talk back; respect each other; and treat everyone as family, even if you don't want to. The most important part of any successful kitchen is a sense of creativity -- and creativity thrives in a happy kitchen. We don't fight, and we don't argue. I don't like arguments. It makes sense, doesn't it? I also can't stand it when the burrito in the combination plate isn't in the middle. If the cooks put it on the left, or the right, I'll make them redo it.
What's never in your kitchen? Never say never. I'm always up for trying new things, whether it's an ingredient or a new dish. There's never any fighting in my kitchen; it just won't be tolerated. Fighting, laziness and people who don't try their hardest are never supposed to be in my kitchen.
What's always in your kitchen? Always be ready for new changes, new ideas and new challenges. You'll always find people in my kitchen who care about what they're preparing and the people around them. There's always a big pot of mole, posole, fresh and dried chiles, organic tortillas, hot sauces and great music in the kitchen, too.
Favorite dish on your menu: The poc chuc, a dish from the Yucatán that has really great spice to it.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Menudo. It's a traditional Mexican dish that most gringos don't like, but it's one of my favorite dishes when it's done right. Sometimes we eat it as a group before we open. We tried to put it on the menu, and it didn't sell. No idea why. It's delicious.
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Guiltiest food pleasure? Chicharrones with lime juice and hot sauce, a cold beer and maybe a shot of tequila while in bed.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Two baby pigs: one to cook now and one to cook later.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Use more lard in everything; cooking with pig is good, too.