“I guess it was pride that brought me back,” says Jair Téllez, explaining why he decided to return to his roots in Mexico and open a high-end restaurant way off the beaten path. He chose the Valle de Guadalupe as his destination, a dusty valley an hour south of the border that, with its new boutique hotels and vineyards, is beginning to look a lot like Napa. But 15 years ago, “it was more or less in the middle of nowhere,” Téllez recalls—a “crazy, impulsive idea” that shouldn’t have worked.
Though Téllez had been cooking in San Francisco for years (after culinary school and a year at Daniel), he was restless. He felt a strong affinity for the Mexican prep guys and dishwashers. He was struck by how his coworkers toiled abroad, and puzzled as to why they risked crossing borders and living as third-class citizens when they should have been able to make a living closer to their families. Laja was an attempt to mend that rift.
“I think it took us three days to get the first customer,” says Téllez. “The first day, nobody came. The second day, nobody came. The third day we thought, ‘Oh, maybe we should make a sign.’ The first customers flipped the menu over and over and were like, ‘Is this it?’ And I thought, ‘Oh fuck, I’m going to end up cooking chilaquiles.’”
Téllez’s tiny tasting menu was almost countercultural in that part of the country, at that point in time. But he stuck it out. And though Laja continues to be a restaurant that consistently registers on the ‘best of’ lists, Téllez shies away from the accolades. He credits his team, all of whom have worked, illegally, in the U.S. at some point, but many of whom have been at Laja from the beginning. “That’s the greatest achievement I have—it’s something human. Food is only an excuse to connect with people in a human way.”
Food is only an excuse to connect with people in a human way.
The counter to the agrarian stylings of Laja is MeroToro, which opened in 2011 on a tree-lined circuit in the fashionable Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City—a frenetic metropolis known equally for its gastronomic avant garde as its street food.
Téllez thrives on this dialectical tension between city and country, with the two interacting elements continuing to shape the way he thinks as a chef. His schedule has only increased in complexity, with the opening of Verde y Crema, a craft-beer garden with a wood-fired kitchen in Tijuana, last November.
“It’s a balancing act, for sure,” says Téllez. “There seems to be a great pride, at least in the American restaurant industry, of how shitty a life I have because I work 70 hours a week in a restaurant—the chef as martyr thing. That’s not funny at all. I want to work in the most efficient way possible. I want to see my kid; I want to live a life; travel, if I want to travel. If my restaurant is going to be 10% less good if I am not here every single day, day in and day out, well, fuck it! Let’s make that 90% be truly amazing. That compromise is worth it to me.”
Here, Téllez reflects on the roots his kaleidoscope creativity, which pairs French technique with Mexican ingredients, and modernist flair with constant introspectiveness.
My mom makes the best beans. They are called frijoles maneados—Sonoran-style, refried pinto beans. You cook the beans, then refry them in oil with onion, garlic, and chile. There are only two chiles there, chile colorado and chile verde. It’s the same chile—one is fresh, the other is dried. You fry the chile in the oil and the oil becomes oniony, garlicky, spicy. My mom will take those out after frying, but I like to leave it in. Hers are just the best.
My mom was very influential in my path to cooking and celebrated the fact that I loved cooking ever since I was young. When I was, like, four years old I started cooking; my mom would let me help out at the stove, help me cook a super bad spaghetti or whatever. I loved it from an early age. (Photo: Jair Téllez)
My mom’s food has a very Sonoran flavor, but she was very experimental for her time. She would try and make dim sum, like 30 years ago, or sushi. She’s the kind of person who would try a dish in a Vietnamese restaurant and go with a piece of the food to the Vietnamese store and say, “Okay, now show me what I need to make this. Teach me.” She was a foodie way, way, way before being a foodie was a thing.
So my mom makes these tamales that don’t look like any kind of tamale here in Mexico City. They are made from fresh corn, scraped from the cob, mixed with cheese, a little baking powder, a little butter or vegetable shortening. You mix it up, spread it on the corn husk, and fill it with a little bit of cheese and a strip of roasted green chile. Then you steam it. That with her beans is the ultimate combination. People will buy the masa these days, but my mom still makes it from scratch. (Photo: sonora.quebarato.com.mx)
In Sonora we have huge tortillas, but we don’t put stuff in them like SF-style burritos. It’s similar to North Indian roti, in a way; they are called tortillas sobaqueras. Sobaquera is slang for armpit—when they make it, it is as big as your arms are round. They’re super thin and you fold them up in a triangle. Or you can serve lunch by wrapping the lunch in the torilla for the people working in the countryside. Those tortillas! You just don’t find them anywhere, except Sonora.
In my house growing up, there were no corn tortillas. Only one time, when my mom tried to make a mole, she served corn tortillas with it, which was very exotic for us. The food in Sonora and Baja is actually so different from the rest of the country that it can be hard to find dried chiles. So ethnic food, for us, was mole, after sushi and dim sum. (Photo courtesy Jair Téllez)
Caldo de Queso
Caldo de queso is a brothy soup from Sonora. It has onion, green chile, potatoes, and cheese. You put cheese in the hot soup and the broth cooks it a little; it leaches all of the whey out into the soup and turns it a little white. It’s delicious! The cheese is a medium-pressed white cheese that is no older than 10 days. It doesn’t melt; it’s not fondue. It becomes bouncy little curd. We do the soup occasionally at Merotoro—it’s a classic-style preparation but we use a different cheese, from Baja. (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Soft-scrambled Egg with Truffles at Daniel (NYC)
I went to culinary school in NYC at the French Culinary Institute. I did my internship at Daniel and then got a job there in the lowest echelon possible, but it was an exciting place to be at that time. Back then, it was especially fun—an interesting crowd, lots of energy, screaming. When you’re young, you like that. Daniel was there, but I was more with Alex Lee (pictured); it was a great, great, great fortune to work with him. It was the early days before they moved to 65th Street.
I remember a day in the kitchen when Alex Lee let me try a soft-scrambled egg with white truffles. And it was like, POW! That was mind-blowing. I’ve never sat in the dining room and eaten that dish the way it was supposed to be eaten, and I don’t know if I ever will, but that was my first taste of white truffle and it was super meaningful. It was amazing. (Photo: Culinary Institute of America)
Green Strawberry Dish at Noma (Copenhagen, Denmark)
There was one dish at Noma, the first time I ate there, that was the only time I have ever cried over a dish. I can’t remember exactly what it was…the dishes are so weird! But it was this green strawberry thing with chamomile, and it was just like a punch in my face. I was stunned. There were so many thoughts buzzing through my mind. It was emotional. It was thoughts of being there in that moment. It was thoughts of “who has the guts to do this dish?!” That was certainly one of the dishes that has spurred emotion in me. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Turbot in Basque Country
I tried a dish of turbot in the Basque country at a place called Calla that tasted just like the sea. They have a small alley with a grill—they grill the fish, and they make a liquid concoction with olive oil and herbs. And instead of working the fish so it is crispy, they work it in such a way that it is smoky, moist, and tender. Just a chunk of that fish, that’s it. It was the kind of dish that changed the way I cook, the way I approached things, the way I think about things. (Photo:Wikimedia Commons)
The salad at Laja
The salad is super simple. It has lemon, olive oil, salt, pepper—that’s it. And we use whatever vegetables we have [based on what is] happening in the garden, so we can utilize more of it and communicate the garden to the guest. The salad was a turning point for me. When I opened Laja, it was my first restaurant and I basically had to figure out how I was going to cook. We started tasting the produce grown in the area and everything tasted so intense, such a concentration of flavor. The lettuce! And the tomato tasted so sweet! Olive oil that tasted green like the place it came from, and lemons that tasted like a perfect ripe lemon. With something as simple as that, you can learn so much. I learned cooking from that salad. It was a breakthrough. (Photo: Baja.com)
Vuelve a la Vida
This dish is like a classic Mexican seafood cocktail. It’s sea urchin, lime, cilantro, and cucumber with smoked corn, served brothy. This dish, to me, expresses who I am as a cook. It’s a simple, straight-forward dish, but I think when you do things more transparently it can show the diner the kind of food you want to eat, without feeding the fantasy of a chef as some great creative mastermind. It’s just sea urchin, cucumber, lime—that’s it. (Photo: casadragones.com)
Roasted Eggplant in Tomato Broth
Sometimes dishes jump back and forth from Laja and MeroToro. It’s a dialectic. Right now I’m in the process of simplifying—focusing on flavor, communicating things directly, becoming more focused. In the city, it’s too easy to pander to sophistication and, before, you know it you are getting baroque. It happens. It’s an ongoing process. But sometimes I go to Laja and bring things I’ve learned in the city there, whether it is a preparation or a different way of looking at an ingredient. And vice versa.
A dish we have done at both places is the eggplant in tomato broth. You cover the eggplant in olive oil and put it in a tomato broth. It becomes syrupy and rich, but it is simple and you think, “Oh, that’s the first time I tasted eggplant, for real.” It teaches you something. (Photo: Facebook/Laja)
BONUS DISH: Seared Pig’s Head with Braised Lentils and Poached Egg at Merotoro
The pork dish is very French-y—it’s like a French afternoon. It is the only dish that has been here from the first day. When we opened MeroToro, there were people who would get up from the table if they saw that thing on the menu. It was a different scene in Mexico City, even just four years ago. It used to be there was a crowd of diners who maintained a restaurant—they knew they were going to decide if that restaurant was going to be able to flourish or not. Now, you see younger, well-traveled people—people willing to try different stuff. It’s become a much freer environment to work in.
So with that dish, it’s not like I invented this combination—pork with lentils and a poached egg is classic. It’s my French training and also working with a cheap ingredient, pig’s head. It’s a lovely taste. It’s a dirty, lovely, meaty flavor and something that I really like. It has become sort of an icon for me. (Photo courtesy Jair Téllez)