Jair TéllezBy Hamish Anderson. Photography by Mark Powell
The man behind Mexico City's lauded MeroToro, discusses taking liberties with traditional Mexican cuisine, the politics of sourcing ingredients and how—Mexican, Californian, Mediterranean, whatever—he just "does" good food.
“I can offer you only water,” says chef Jair Téllez as we sit down to talk in the minimalist dining room of his restaurant MeroToro, located on a tree-lined street in Mexico City’s Colonia Condesa. It’s 10 a.m., and the only thing emerging from the kitchen is the constant, purposeful sound of chopping and sizzling—ingredients are being prepared, but no food will appear until the first wave of customers arrives in a few hours. The previous day, during a long lunch, it had been a different story, as the 40-year-old chef sent out intensely flavorful yet seemingly simple dishes like a salad of braised octopus with grated, house-made blood sausage; an extraordinary abalone and sea urchin risotto which tasted, surprisingly, of Scotland (“Abalone has the taste of a cold sea,” Téllez explained); and a slow-cooked piece of Wagyu brisket. My notes from the meal are full of rapture, but every other page includes the question: Is this Mexican food?
To a foreigner with a preconceived notion of Mexican flavors and techniques, Téllez’s food seems pitched somewhere between Mediterranean and the New American cuisine of Northern California—which turns out to be a big influence on the chef. Téllez worked in the Bay Area, where he was inspired by the approach to local ingredients. Later, he opened a restaurant, Laja, in Valle de Guadalupe, in his home state of Baja California, which used a similar ethos but created its own cuisine. Three years ago, he moved to Mexico City, opening MeroToro a year later. It’s another ingredient-driven place that’s just as hard to classify. “We went to the extent of even paying people to help us explain the restaurant to the public,” Téllez says. “They told us, ‘You need to put that it’s cocina de Baja California because people want to go to a place where they know where it’s from.’ But it’s not really a Baja-themed restaurant. I just do good food.”
Swallow: What makes MeroToro a “Mexican” restaurant?
Jair Téllez: I’m Mexican, the people who come are Mexican, we’re in Mexico, the ingredients are Mexican. It’s not your folkloric Mexico, though. I’ve never been part of that. Do I look very Mexican? Okay, not exactly. I was born and grew up in Tijuana—the Alaska of Mexico, you could say. It’s closer to Vancouver than it is to Mexico City. When I was a child, the first Mexican TV we saw was through Los Angeles Latin TV, just to give you an idea of how disenfranchised we were, growing up in terms of mainstream Mexico.
So Tijuana has its own identity within Mexico?
Especially over the last few years. In the rest of the country, there’s this reticence towards questioning the lack of a great past, whereas in the border we question constantly: what we are, what we are not, what we can be, what we can come up with. Basically inventing an identity. We have the great, great advantage of having an empty canvas. Nothing against pre-Hispanic, but I don’t feel the need to put amaranth in the sauce. We’re not carrying the pyramids on our backs.
Are you trying to change Mexican cuisine?
Not deliberately. But there are some things I take a stance on. For example, I don’t want to use tuna. I use sierra fish or Spanish mackerel. Or I use baqueta [rooster hind, gulf coney], which is an obscure fish in this part of the country. Our fish provider said, “We have them constantly, but no one likes them. Everyone wants huachinango [red snapper], róbalo [snook], extraviado [yellowedge grouper].” So I started to use it. That was a year ago. Now the fish guy sells baqueta.
Why do you use local ingredients?
Because they taste very good. When there’s less distance between me and the producer, I get a more reliable ingredient. Then I can work the way I like to work. I don’t like to put too much stuff in it. Just make it taste the way it’s supposed to taste. Of course, there’s the social aspect, and I like that. It creates an amazing circle. For example, I found a fantastic pork producer who has this Ibérico breed, but I still have my Valle de Guadalupe attitude, so I buy the whole pig. Every two weeks we get a 200-pound pig and do stuff with it. I like to see the whole animal. And if I see something different with the pig, I talk to the producer. “Hey, I saw that this one had less marbling” and so on. Then he can change things, have a better product. If I buy from him just the shank, it won’t be the same.
Do you buy local as a rule, or only when you can?
I try to. It’s not like, “If it’s not local, I won’t use it.” I bring stuff from Baja California, which is not local at all. We use stuff from other countries, like the rice is not Mexican. We use two olive oils—one Mexican, one not. I still use some Parmesan cheese. But all our meats and fish are from here, not because it’s Mexican, but because it’s really good, or the best we can find here for the price. I don’t think in terms of nation, as I told you. If for some reason I had to bring it from Guatemala, I would do it. Or the U.S. There’s amazing stuff in the U.S. But what we get here from the U.S. is shit.
Is there a dish on the menu that explains the restaurant?
The pig’s head cooked on the grill with a slow-poached egg: three ingredients, takes 10 hours to do. Looks very simple, tastes very good. Also the abalone. We just slice it, put it on the plate with some good olive oil. Right now we have these heirloom tomatoes grown in Texcoco. We throw in a little of these wild weeds called tréboles, and olive oil and fresh fava beans. I’m obsessed with seasoning. It’s all about seasoning and making food taste good—the rest, it’s other stuff.
Swallow celebrated it’s third issue with an intimate soirée at Red Hook’s RES, complete with samplings from Téllez’s kitchen. Check out our recap of his visit to NYC here.