Julian Medina: Made in Mexico

InterviewMargarita LariosComment

Margarita Larios: When did you first realize you wanted to be a chef? How did you reach this decision?  

Julian Medina: I decided right after I was done with high school, when I was 17 years old. But I always wanted to be a chef. I used to watch my grandfather and my dad, and spend time with them in the kitchen. . . . So I decided to take the first step and get a job in a restaurant.

ML: What does cooking mean to you? What inspires you to create a dish? 

JM: Cooking is my life; I enjoy cooking as much as I enjoy eating. To create a dish you need not only the knowledge you possess, but the inspiration and the epiphany you might have –or not– that day. A good mood always inspires a good dish.

ML: Do you think Mexicans and Latin Americans overall have a different relationship with food than people from other parts of the world, or is this a stereotype?

JM: I think Mexicans and Latin Americans live to eat –we’re always thinking about what we are going to eat next. We enjoy and appreciate food.

ML: What about Mexican cuisine? What do think distinguishes it from others? 

JM: The flavor, the use of spices, the chiles and herbs, and seasonal ingredients; we still keep a great deal of tradition through the ancient dishes and ingredients that we still use today.

ML: According to you, what’s the most magnificent dish in Mexican cuisine?

JM: There are a lot of dishes, but I would say any dish that uses corn, Nixtamal (corn that’s been cooked, soaked in lime and rinsed to make tortillas, among other things).

ML: Let’s talk more about your taste. What’s your favorite dish to cook?

JM: Any Mexican “street food”, like a great taco, quesadilla, torta, memelita or a nice Oaxacan tlayuda.

ML: You came to New York when Chef Ricardo Sandoval offered you to work at one of his restaurants. Can you tell us how you met him? What do you think impressed him about you? 

JM: I initially met the General Manager of the first restaurant he opened, Savann, and that’s how I was able to contact him. I decided to call him directly, but he said he didn’t need anyone at the moment… But, the next day, he called me at the hotel I was working at, and said: I want you to come and work with me, when can you come? It was all of a sudden! And so, I was in NYC 2 weeks after.

ML: Was it difficult to decide to relocate to NY?

JM: I didn’t know where I was coming to, but that didn’t stop me from achieving my goals… It was hard at the beginning, but my passion for cooking and the excitement to be in the best city ever, kept me going.

ML: When you worked with Chef Sandoval, what do you think was the most important lesson you learned about cooking and about the restaurant business? 

JM: Well he is a businessman. I knew the basics, but I learned how to work the business and create dishes with him. He gave me the confidence to be myself in the kitchen, and encouraged me to make special dishes.

ML: While you were Chef de Cuisine at Maya, the restaurant earned two stars from The New York Times. The four restaurants you own and lead currently have earned critics´ recognition: Yerba Buena was selected as one of the best restaurants of 2008, and Yerba Buena Perry was awarded four stars by the magazine, Time Out New York –just to name a few of your achievements.  How did you get so far?

JM: A lot of work and dedication, passion for what I do, and some more work.

ML: In your opinion, what are the qualities a good chef must possess? What is the biggest virtue a dish can have? 

JM: The chef has to be humble in the kitchen; a good quality is to be creative and consistent on a daily basis. The dish, on the other hand, has to be balanced. For me, an explosion of flavors in one bite is important, but one should never lose simplicity either.

ML: You have said before that you use French techniques and Mexican and Latin American ingredients. Aside from working at the Hacienda de los Morales and the Nikko Hotel in Mexico, at some point in your career you also worked as the Executive Chef at the Japanese-Brazilian-Peruvian restaurant, SushiSamba. How did these different experiences shape you as a chef? How would you define your style? 

JM: I think the style of every chef is defined by the journey they go through in life. I use techniques from my experience on a daily basis, but I’m also influenced by what’s happening at the time; by innovation and different preparation. I think my way of cooking is light and flavorful. I approach my cooking by using my native ingredients with different techniques.

ML: You’re a big fan of Peruvian cuisine, which is your favorite dish? What other cuisines do you admire?

JM: I love a good anticucho, ceviche, huancaina or lomo saltado. Other cuisines I admire are the French, Japanese, Turkish, and American cuisines.

ML: You own and run four successful restaurants in New York City. Did you ever imagine this would be your life when you were young? How have you evolved as a person? 

JM: Well, you start with the dream of being successful in what you do, of course. I look back now and see that I have worked a lot to get to where I am now. I’m confident, mature –but never feel old!–; I like to joke and be good to the people that help me run all my restaurants.

ML: You try to cook regularly at your restaurants, but do you cook at home? Do your wife or daughter have a favorite dish they ask for?

JM: We all love to eat, and I love to cook for my family. My daughter asks me for lamb “lollies” –as I call  lamb chops–, and my wife does too.

ML: If you could live the rest of your life on only one dish, which one would that be?

JM: Roast chicken!

Photos by Neil Watkins.