Komali Chef Anastacia Quinones on the Allure of Victor Tango's, the Mulato Chili and More
Anastacia Quiñones is just one week into her new job as chef at the modern Mexican cuisine spot Komali. The Dallas native attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York, then fell in love with San Francisco after just several hours visiting. After working there for a few years, she returned to Dallas to be back with her family and worked at Victor Tango's, Alma and now Abraham Salum's Komali.
We spoke with her for this week's Three-Course Interview.
What was your childhood like, from a food perspective?
My mom was an in-house chef for a family in Highland Park. She didn't actually know how to cook going into the job, she lied about it, and then ended up teaching herself by watching Sesame Street and Julia Child. She would then be so proud of the food she made, things like chicken tetrazzini and spaghetti Bolognese, that she would bring it home for us. So, we ate a lot of different things.
So was your mother part of your inspiration for becoming a chef?
Yes, she was. She had a catering business on the side and I didn't really want to cook growing up, but I saw how people reacted to her food and it felt great.
After I graduated from high school she tried to talk me into mortgage or real estate, and I tried that for a little while until I was bout 21, then I decided that I wanted to cook. And she told me that if I was going to do it then I needed to go to school. That's when I went to the CIA.
How did that go?
I got a taste of New York, French food and classical French training and, then there was no way I could come back to Dallas. It was seven years before I was ready to come back home.
Did you stage in New York?
No, because I really wanted to just focus on school and making good grades. And, I'll be honest; I was a little intimidated by New York. Then, during a vacation I visited San Francisco with my roommate and we were in the city for what felt like days but it was only four hours and I fell in love with it. I knew I had to move there.
What hooked you?
The energy. The way the food was set up. How you could walk into any hole-in-the-wall place and find organic produce on the shelf. The local food was amazing and I loved how restaurants would get food at the farmers market in the morning and have it on their menu that night. I hadn't ever seen anything like that and had so much respect for it.
Where did you work in San Francisco?
I worked for Charles Nobb Hill. It had actually closed then re-opened under a new concept. There were only three of us and soon after we started my sous chef left to go to Jardiniere and he invited me to go with him and I went.
What was it like working at Jardinière?
I staged at Jardinière for one day and it was so scary. I remember walking up to the line to get salt and the chef, Robbie Lewis, walked up to a kid on the line and said, "What is this?" And the kid said, "It's a turnip, Chef?" And the chef said, "Do you hate farms?" And the kid said, "No." And the chef said, "Then why are these burned?" Then hit the kid on the back of his hand with a spoon and walked off.
That was my first experience in a French brigade kitchen and I was terrified. But in way I got a rush out of it. Then 200 covers would hit for the opera all at once and that adrenaline just feeds you and you always want more.
How long did you stay after that one-day staging?
What did you learn about the San Francisco diner?
They're adventurous. There aren't a lot of fast food places in San Francisco, so people are very well educated about what's going on in the food scene and they know what they want. They don't necessarily demand local food, they're just use to it.
What was the relationship like between farmers and chefs?
Great. Traci Des Jardins would visit farmers and go to the farmers market twice a week. Her pastry chef would get up early Saturday mornings and go pick the strawberries for the desserts. It was normal to do that. They would never use anything that wasn't in season.