Chef Julio Peraza on How Komali Is Helping Dallas Learn to Love Real Mexican Food
To say that Mexican food in Texas is in a period of transformation is a serious understatement. Tex-Mex restaurants that were inspired much more by Tejanos in Texas may have once been more popular than traditional interior Mexican dishes, but chefs like Nico Sanchez at Meso Maya and Abraham Salum of Komali are working hard to turn the tide.
Kevin Marple photo, courtesy of the restaurant "I think what we're doing at Komali is better and different than most other restaurants out there."
In the battle against Velveeta-dripping Tex-Mex, Salum enlisted the talented Julio Peraza to run Komali, his intimate and traditional Mexican restaurant on Cole Avenue just a few months ago. Since taking over at Komali, Peraza is learning Mexican cuisine while executing some of the best in the city. I sat down with Peraza to talk transitioning from the traditional French kitchens of his past on the West Coast, his own background in Salvadoran food, and some exciting new options to look forward to on the menu at Komali.
The last few months have been pretty crazy for you. What was it like to come into Komali, survey what was going on, and then decide what you wanted to change?
When I first came in, I pretty much just evaluated the talent that I had in the kitchen. As a chef, you can come in and have crazy ideas with food and where you want to take it, but if you don't really focus on your staff and the potential and talent that they have, you're not going to get where you want to be. We have a really talented kitchen right now, and I'm still building that. I just got a new sous chef, and that's only going to make us that much stronger.
I also put focus on the food and truly studying what Mexican cuisine is. Everybody has their own idea of what Mexican food is here in the United States, but once you start looking into what Mexican cuisine really is, it's not what everybody thinks, just beans and rice. Rice is not a Mexican ingredient at all. It's used now in Mexico, but I wouldn't say that it's a staple. Right now, I'm trying to work with Chef Abraham to truly go back to the basics and just refine what we're doing to make it better instead of trying a bunch of crazy new dishes.
If everyone has a definition of what Mexican food is, what's yours?
To be honest, my background is pretty much only in French food. The more I study Mexican food, the more I realize that each state has a different style of cooking. So that makes what I'm doing really interesting. You have the Yucatan area, and they're cooking Mayan style food. As you move into the north, the cuisine is more Aztec. The Mayans use specific techniques and ingredients, like braising and banana leaves, for example, and the other regions of Mexico aren't using those ingredients.
What has it been like discovering Mexican cuisine as someone who just wasn't all that familiar with its past and present?
It's awesome, really. It keeps me on my toes, and I'm really interested in learning about this food. As a chef, you just make classic food when it comes down to it, but you're doing it in a modern way. Mexico is a big country and there are so many different types of spices, chiles, and sauces. There's a lot of seafood, but some places aren't near an ocean so they're using a wider variety of proteins. I just want to take these traditional dishes and do them in a modern way, and kind of showcase what's going on in Mexico right now.
Do you think you've got a pretty good handle on the cuisine so far?
I do. You know, the biggest compliment is hearing from Mexican people that I'm doing a good job with their food. We have one family who comes to Komali all the time that is from Mexico City, and they just brought their son to our restaurant and he came to me and shook my hand.
He told me that he was proud of the food that we're making because it represented his culture. To me, when someone from Mexico comes and tells me that and they've been there ever since, I know we're going in the right direction at Komali. When I first started working here, it was out of my comfort zone, but I'm so blessed to do something new that's going to put us on the map of what chef-driven, authentic Mexican food is.
Your background was in traditional French kitchens. How do you blend that cuisine and experience with Mexican ingredients?
When you look at French food, there's a lot of traditional techniques. Different cuts of meat, braising in wine. I'm bringing those techniques to Komali. For example, our chicken mole is one of our most popular dishes. As soon as I started in the kitchen, we started cooking the chicken sous-vide. That's a technique that has been used in France for many years, but is relatively new to American kitchens. The way that you make the sauces is fundamental, but the details are a little different. For example, instead of a traditional mirepoix, we're using cilantro, oregano, and bay leaves to make stock.
Are there any elements of French cuisine that you see in Mexican food, maybe something that most people wouldn't notice?
There are a lot. If you go to a Mexican restaurant, you're going to see guisados, which is just a way of braising proteins like you would in French cuisine. They're doing the same thing, just using different ingredients. Pollo rostizado is roasted chicken that is prepared in a very similar way. Now, Mexico is even producing wine. They're coming up with excellent coffees, too. We just changed the coffee at Komali to a Mexican coffee, and I'm really excited to start playing with it. Maybe do a filet with a coffee crust? I don't know.
You've worked in some pretty impressive kitchens across the country, including Dallas' own Andre Natera, and Michael Mina in San Francisco. How has your background in the industry contributed to what you're doing at Komali now?
In the beginning of my career, I saw chef-driven food in the restaurants that I was working in. Chefs were coming up with menus, they showed you how to cook it once, and then you executed it every day. As my career started to take off and I worked with other chefs, they allowed me to be not just a cook but a chef. Now that I'm in charge, I see that there's just so much talent out there, and that I can only be as good as my right hand man. In my kitchen, and this is something that Andre and Michael Mina did for me, they allowed me to be a chef.
I wasn't just cooking. I was helping come up with dishes on the menu. We would have "think tanks" in our kitchens, and we were all so excited to put things on the menu. Now, I realize that it's not just about the research that I do and the vision that I have for Komali, it's about encouraging my cooks to contribute their own ideas. I can help them refine the technique a little bit and make these dishes better, but chefs that allow their cooks to get creative are the ones who are going to be successful. There's nothing more exciting to a cook or a young chef to see their dishes selling out in the menu.
It seems like you have to set aside your ego a little bit as a chef to really respect the ideas of cooks in your kitchen. Do you think that's something that's really important and formative for young chefs?
When I was working in Vegas, I learned that whether you're a cook or not, you're a chef when you're in the kitchen. If you wear a white jacket, and you wear an apron, you're a chef in my kitchen. My team at Komali has adapted really quickly because we all treat each other like chefs. There are some that don't want to improve their careers, and those guys are always going to be cooks. But there's nothing better than seeing someone grow and become a sous chef after working on the line for five years. Everybody in my kitchen has a chance to share their ideas, because I didn't want my chefs coming in and making the same dishes every single day.
It seems like Dallas could use a little more of that.
I have an advantage, really. My staff is largely Hispanic people, mostly Mexican. I have it easier than a French restaurant in this town. If 50 percent of their cooks are Hispanic people, they're going to have to learn this new cuisine. Maybe their background is in Salvadorian food or Mexican food, and that's just completely different than other cuisines. For me, I want to allow my staff, who is largely Mexican, to elevate the dishes that they've been cooking since they were kids. They're all excited because it's their food and our culture. It's not easy finding good talent, but I am one of the lucky ones.
What about the ways that other Latin American cuisines influence the menu at Komali?
Here's the thing. If you go to Mexico, there is so much change right now. There's one restaurant in Mexico City that was named one of the top fifty restaurants in the world. I think Mexican food is really the next food that is coming up and is really going to make noise here in the United States. If you think about ceviche, for example, there are plenty of Mexican ceviches on the menu, but there's also dishes from Peru and other countries in South America.
They may call it crudo once you get down to Peru, but it's really all the same ingredients. On our menu, I can get away with putting a crudo with Mexican vinaigrette or cure the fish in a different way. I just did some salmon that was cured in mescal overnight, and it was done in the exact same way I would have done it in another kind of kitchen, just done with different ingredients.
What about your own background in food? Did you grow up cooking Salvadorian food with your mom?
I was pretty lucky in that my mom was in the restaurant industry when I was a kid in El Salvador. When I came to the United States, as I was growing up, my mom and dad were working a lot, so I did a lot of my own cooking in the kitchen. I'm also really lucky in that my family all really loves food. My mom and dad are both really great cooks, so cooking has always been a passion for me. I would say my mom cooks during the weekdays, and my dad cooks on the weekends.
What do they cook?
My mom actually lived in Italy for a few years, so when I was growing up, she would cook Italian food. Especially on my birthdays. My dad is a very traditional Salvadoran, so we would have carne asada or grilled chicken with some yucca. Yucca is very popular in El Salvador. We'd do chicharron which is a little bit different than what you would see in Mexico, and of course, pupusas.
What about Salvadoran food in Dallas? When you're craving it, where do you go?
There is a pupuseria in Mesquite that is just a little hole in the wall, it's not even posted on the Internet yet, and it's really good to me. In a good pupusa, the cheese doesn't leak outside of the tortilla. That's when you know that someone actually knows what they're doing back there. Some people like the cheese coming out and the crispiness of it, but that's not how the ladies are doing it back in El Salvador. When I find a good pupusa or some yucca fritas, I keep going back to that same place.
Tacos are obviously an incredibly popular food, why do you think pupusas haven't gotten the same play on trendy menus? Pupusas are awesome, and the ingredients are totally similar.
There really isn't a big Salvadorian population here. If you go to L.A., you'll see tons and tons of pupuseria. I asked myself the other day why Salvadoran places here always offer tacos, but that's just because there aren't a whole lot of people that are looking for pupusas here.
Also, in other countries in Latin America, Mexican food has really become popular. 10 years ago when I took a trip to El Salvador, there were more taquerias than you would believe. I was speechless. When I left El Salvdor when I was eight years old, you didn't even know what Mexican food was.
The other interesting thing is that the majority of our kitchen workforce is Hispanic, and they're learning how to make really great food. There are so many people who have worked under great chefs and have a really good understanding of food who are going to Mexico to open restaurants. It's really doing a lot for the state of Mexican food. If people went to Mexico City to eat right now, I think they would be blown away by what's going on there. It's just amazing.
Who are some of your favorite chefs or restaurants that are really making waves south of the border?
Pojul is one that I've really been watching. They're doing amazing, classical dishes. You would think that they're a French restaurant, but they're applying modern techniques to these really great dishes. Even the plating of the food is so different. In the next five years, I think we're going to see a lot of improvement in the culture of Mexican food, and Latin cuisine as a whole.
As you move your restaurant into this dining scene where Mexican food is on the rise, how do you and Komali contribute to that?
I want people to understand what we're doing. First of all, it's not Tex-Mex. It's a study in Mexican food that is also fun. We're focusing on the way that the food tastes and how we prepare it. I want to see Komali doing really fun food and showing people that Mexican food isn't just beans and rice on a plate.
We're using different ingredients that people haven't really seen before on the upcoming menu. People are going to wonder what chile de cascabel is, and it literally translates to "rattlesnake chile." People have never heard of it, but the flavor of it is nice and smoky. We're going to start playing with these really unfamiliar ingredients. There are so many good ingredients in Mexican cuisine, chayote for example, and you don't see them on menus here. I did chayote in the same way that I would have prepared a potato gratin, and people were blown away. These restaurants are using the same ingredients over and over. We want to use the ones that people don't truly see, and have fun with them.
In a city where Mexican food is second only to steakhouses, it sounds like you want to redefine Dallas' concept of Mexican food and culture. Do you think that's going to be difficult?
One thing that Komali does have is a very loyal clientele. I talk to a lot of people during our service, and our guests are excited for our food. Right now, I have lamb on the menu. What other Mexican restaurant would you go to that would be serving lamb? Fresh garbanzo beans are commonly used in the Mexican diet, but you never see that on menus either. That's what we're doing differently.
Do you think exotic ingredients are part of the attraction, that maybe you're doing something that adventurous diners are going to seek out?
I think so. If you ask me, if I'm going to eat at a Mexican restaurant, I look at the menu and don't really see anything I've never tried. When you look at our menu, you're going to see New York strip beside chicken mole and homemade tortillas and tamales. There's so many things that we're doing fresh. We use a molino to grind our own masa from start to finish. We have a chef, Araceli, she does pretty much all of our masa making. She makes probably 300 fresh tortillas a night. We're making tortillas just like Mexican people do at home, and I think that's what we're doing different. Our tamales are wrapped in banana leaves and filled with pork, chicken, and cheese. What better ingredients could you have to work with? I think what we're doing at Komali is better and different than most other restaurants out there.
That's a pretty big statement.
Yeah, it is.
How did your vision kind of come together with Chef Abraham Salum to build a menu at Komali?
It was really inspiring. Chef Abraham is a very smart, very talented chef, and we just sat down and talked about the direction we wanted to see Komali go. There were just two chefs, who weren't bringing their egos to the table, picking each other's brains and trying to make the best restaurant we could. This isn't about my ego or his ego, it's about doing really great food. Chef Abraham's background is really strong in Mexican cuisine, and I think we collaborate super well. I just proposed a new menu to him and he changed a few things, and we're ready to start prepping for it tomorrow.
Can you tell me anything about the new menu, or is it top secret?
Maybe a little. Our enchiladas, made by Chef Araceli, are really popular right now. As the seasons change, we're really trying to make the menu lighter, so we're going to do some seafood enchiladas. I also really love scallops so I want to do some creative dishes with those, you'll probably see those in a few places on the menu.
Then, I want to do some more inventive purees and sauces, like spring pea and cilantro with garlic confit, or my version of a garlicky mojo de ajo. I'm also really excited about making cilantro tortillas, and definitely sopes. I'm thinking about doing some braised rabbit sopes, and I'm bringing back our really good tinga sauce, but I'll probably do quail instead of chicken.