Chef Maycoll Calderón at first appears to radiate nonchalance as he nurses a cappuccino in the serene, sun-drenched patio of Huset, his restaurant in Mexico City. The tables are being set for the soon-to-arrive lunchtime crowd. But the Venezuelan-born chef is brimming with excitement and eager to share the news. He has taken on an unenviable challenge — to conquer the world’s second largest Mexican city, Los Angeles. Tintorera, Calderón’s third restaurant, is scheduled to open in spring in the heart of Silver Lake, making him one of the handful of Mexico City chefs who have recently chosen L.A. for their latest projects.
Huset, which opened in August 2015 in trendy Mexico City neighborhood Colonia Roma, is set in a restored early–20th century neoclassical residence. It is the acme of a revolutionary culinary scene that has been in the works for years, which began across town in the tony Polanco neighborhood. It's there that now–star chef Enrique Olvera pioneered what would become Modern Mexican cooking at Pujol, one of the world's most acclaimed restaurants, whose kitchen became a seedbed of creativity, spawning a generation of young cooks who would go out on their own. In keeping with current world trends, these chefs would rethink Mexican traditions, turning them inside out. And, of course, they would highlight local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients. Calderón does just that at Huset, now one of the most popular restaurants in the city. He says he will continue that methodology when he launches Tintorera later this year in the former Cowboys & Turbans space in Silver Lake.
Huset is set in a formal mansion, but the sensitive design by partner Walter Neyenberg brings the space up to date while evoking old-world grandeur. Smoke pervades almost every dish on the menu — Calderón’s technique is to grill, then sauce. Some dishes, such as ceviches and aguachiles, refer directly to the Mexican lexicon, others are chef’s creations; all take advantage of what is local and seasonal. For example, gnocchi are bathed in lemon cream sauce and accompanied by wild mushrooms from the nearby State of Mexico. A large meatball arrives in a sauce tropicalized by a Carribean-style sofrito and sprinkled with queso cotija from Michoacán. Calderón calls the style cocina de campo, where most rustic dishes are grilled over charcoal. At Tintorera, Calderón says the menu will continue that lineage of Modern Mexican cooking.
His newest outpost seems like a natural fit. After all, Colonia Roma has many cultural similarities to the enclaves of Northeast Los Angeles, and it has undergone a rebirth in recent years. Roma was designed at the turn of the 20th century based on the urban ideal of Georges-Eugène Haussmann — the French city planner responsible for Paris' arboreal avenues — who created orderly middle- and upper-class housing. Single-family homes are interspersed with over-the-top mansions in every style from art nouveau to deco. Until the 1940s, La Roma was the place to live. A cultural community thrived here well into the ’50s — William S. Burroughs famously shot his wife in a game of William Tell gone awry here. After World War II, American suburban-style living supplanted the baronial, servant-heavy scene and the wealthy moved north to Polanco, or to car- and swimming pool–friendly Lomas. Mansions were left to abandonment, pretty homes demolished to make way for parking lots. The devastating 1985 earthquake, which hit the area hard, put the nail in the coffin. It would be another 20 years before Roma would come back. Its affordable rents became attractive to creative types, both foreign and national. Art galleries, design shops, cool late-night bars and innovative restaurants sprang up like mushrooms and continue to do so. It's a story not unlike Silver Lake, which has seen a demographic shift in recent years. So it's logical for chef Calderón to open his first L.A. venue in a neighborhood that shares a similar DNA.
As we talk in the increasingly bustling patio, the chef’s calm shifts to spirited enthusiasm, as he reveals his plans for bringing contemporary Mexico City flavors to Los Angeles.
How did Huset come about?
First we found this beautiful house; it was a wreck so took a long time to renovate. The space was perfect for my dream restaurant, a cocina del campo — country kitchen — wood oven, hardly any gas, seasonal ingredients.
Why L.A. and Silver Lake?
I always had a dream to open a place in the U.S., because I lived there and was intrigued by the possibilities the ingredients would provide. You start with a dream, then you slowly build it.
I didn’t know L.A. very well, but my partner did and he introduced me to Silver Lake — I knew it was right. We see similarities to La Roma there — that hip, creative vibe, you feel it everywhere. Like, you go into a café and everybody’s talking about creating something. Here in Mexico, maybe it’s more about design, architecture projects, art; there of course it’s Hollywood so the subject is different, but the same exciting energy. We found a spot very similar to Huset, a simple, open space with lots of greenery. It’s going to be called Tintorera, which is a type of blue shark. We’re going to do a speakeasy, too.
What about the food?
I want to bring what’s happening in Mexico to California. In Huset we do cocina de campo — country cooking, everything charcoal. At Tintorera I’m going to take a similar approach, simple grilling and saucing, everything light, accessible. It will be all about seafood. I like fish, love ceviches. I want to explore that side of my personality. Fish tacos, done in a different way from Baja, more refined. The seafood in California is amazing, there’s much more variety than here. And there’s all the stuff from the East Coast, too, the clams, lobsters. It’s exciting, man.
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What differences do you see between the chefs in the United States and Mexico?
I think in Mexico right now there’s more creative energy, people willing to take risks. In the U.S. it’s the business thing, which can impede cooks to really open up. So I want to bring our creativity to the States. Make things that are fun, not academic, take more chances. This even applies to service, I find it cold in the States. Service here is more attentive. I hate that there they just bring the check. We want people to chill out, feel that no one is kicking you out of the restaurant.
Do you think being in L.A. will change you as a chef?
Of course it’s going to change me. There will be so much more accessible, all the other cuisines like Thai, Korean, Japanese. I’m going to get into it. Managing three restaurants and living in two places is tight, but now’s the time. L.A. is waiting for us, no?