It’s hard to remember a time when Mexican food (or at least Tex-Mex food) wasn’t big, but today Mexican is as popular as ever. The reason? It’s unique, flavorful and complex. Many of us know the low-brow, Americanized Mexican foods, like tacos and burritos, but Mexican food also exists in the fine dining scene. There are many big-name chefs who have contributed to making Mexican cuisine what it is today in America, taking it to new and modern heights. People like Rick Bayless, who isn’t even Mexican, has practically become an ambassador for the cuisine.
We’ve compiled a list of our favorite chefs who cook Mexican cuisine in the United States. They have all contributed in many different ways by changing perceptions, exposing Americans to a wider range of authentic Mexican cooking. Find out why we love them below.
Growing up in Mexico City, Richard Sandoval was inspired to enter the culinary world by his mother’s homecooking and his restaurateur father’s business acumen. He eventually found himself in culinary school at the CIA in upstate New York. After graduating, Sandoval worked in classic French restaurants in NYC, but returned to his roots in 1997 when he opened Maya. He later partnered with opera star Placido Domino to open Pampano in midtown. Sandoval now has restaurants all over the world, covering authentic Mexican cuisine, coastal Mexican cuisine, contemporary Mexican cuisine and even fusion cuisine.
Mary Sue Milliken And Susan Feniger
Mary Sue and Susan have been friends and business partners for more than 25 years. Both chefs began their careers working in fine French dining, but were drawn to the cuisine of Mexico by their staffs. In 1985, the two took a road trip to Mexico, discovering a new world of flavor. They came back with a plan to open their own Mexican restaurant together, Border Grill. With three locations in southern California and a food truck, the restaurants offer authentic Mexican cuisine. The two ladies have also made television appearances on the Food Network and Mary Sue Milliken was a contestant on the third season of Top Chef Masters.
Ricky Bayless’s name is synonymous with Mexican cuisine. Born in Oklahoma to restaurateurs who owned a local barbecue restaurant, Bayless gained an appreciation for food at an early age. Inspired by his Latin American studies in college, he moved to Mexico with his wife in the 1980s. There he wrote his first cookbook, “Authentic Mexican,” which was hailed as the greatest contribution to the Mexican table by Craig Claiborne. In 1987, Bayless moved to Chicago and opened Frontera Grill, which specializes in contemporary regional cuisine. In 1989 he opened Topolobampo. Bayless won the first season of Top Chef Masters. He continues to write cookbooks and host his award-winning cooking show on PBS.
Born in Mexico, Zarela Martinez began cooking in Texas during the 1970s out of necessity but soon saw herself drawn to the culinary world. She mentored under Paul Prudhomme and was soon noticed by restaurant critic Craig Claiborne. She moved her family (including son Aarón Sanchez) to New York City and consulted for the city’s first Mexican regional cuisine restaurant, Cafe Marimba, eventually becoming its executive chef. In 1987, she opened her own restaurant, Zarela, which closed in 2011. Martinez continues to work on various projects and cookbooks. Her fans hope a new restaurant may be in her future.
Most people will recognize Aarón Sanchez as the tattooed chef from the Food Network, but he’s more than just a TV personality. Aaron began cooking at a young age helping his mother with her catering business (Sanchez’s mother is Zarela Martinez). After mentoring under chef Paul Prudhomme in his teens, Sanchez entered culinary school at Johnson & Wales. Afterward he found himself working in San Francisco and later New York. He is executive chef of NYC’s Centrico restaurant, which serves elevated regional Mexican cuisine.
As a native of Mexico City, Roberto Santibañez left for Paris to pursue a culinary career. After working in restaurants throughout Europe and Mexico, Santibañez left for Austin, Texas in 1997 to work at Fonda San Miguel. In 2002 he joined Rosa Mexicano in NYC, making it one of the most popular upscale Mexican restaurants. He recently opened Fonda restaurant in Brooklyn and Manhattan, serving urban-style Mexican food. He recently released a new cookbook, “Truly Mexican.”
Can a pastry chef make the transition to executive chef? And can that pastry chef switch from cooking modernist cuisine to Mexican? Alex Stupak has done both. After working as the pastry chef for some of the best and most creative chefs like Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago and Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in NYC, Stupak wanted a change of pace. In 2010 he decided to switch to Mexican cuisine and opened Empellon Taqueria in the East Village. But this isn’t the standard taco joint, but an upscale one. Just this past February he opened a sister restaurant Empellon Cocina, which serves as his modern exploration in Mexican cuisine. Chef Stupak is the one to keep an eye on.
Born to Ecuadorian parents in Chicago, Jose Garces has made a name for himself in the culinary scene with restaurants in both Chicago and Philadelphia, including his modern Mexican eatery, Distrito, in University City, Philly. He was named best chef mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation in 2008. Most people will recognize Garces from the Food Network, where he’s made appearances on Iron Chef America and won the Next Iron Chef competition in 2009.
As a disciple of experimental chef Ferran Adria, Jose Andrés decided to leave Spain and make a name for himself in the United States. He began working in restaurants in D.C. and helped create Jaleo, one of the first Spanish tapas restaurants in the country. Although best known as one of the premiere Spanish chefs in America, Andrés put his stamp on Mexican cuisine when in 2004 he opened Oyamel, a restaurant combining classic Mexican cuisine with modern touches featuring “antojitos,” Mexico’s version of tapas. One of Andrés’ newer restaurants, China Poblano in Las Vegas, combines Chinese-Mexican fusion, based on the influence Spanish exploration and the spice trade had on both countries during the 16th century. Andrés continues to open restaurants, write cookbooks, host television shows on PBS and run his business Think Food Group.
Traci Des Jardins
Born and raised in California, Traci Des Jardin‘s culinary journey was influenced by her Mexican and French Acadian grandparents. After working in the best kitchens in Los Angeles, San Francisco and France, where she apprenticed with some of the biggest names in French cuisine including Alain Ducasse and Alain Passard, she opened her French-California cuisine hybrid, Jardinière, in San Francisco in 1997. In 2004, Des Jardins opened Mijita Cocina Mexicana in San Francisco. Inspired by her cooking lessons with her grandmother, the restaurant offers the best combination of seasonal and local food with traditional Mexican flavors.
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