Inspired Dining Series
Episode 2: Chef Saul Ortiz
Inspired Dining Series This Inspired Dining Series is in collaboration with the Epicurean Charitable Foundation. The local non-profit, founded in Las Vegas, pairs a future hospitality student with one of their 20 food and beverage hospitality executives. Through mentorship and scholarships, the students are able to achieve their dreams of becoming the future leaders of the Las Vegas hospitality industry. In each Inspired Dining Series, ECF brings together one of their students and a leader in the culinary and hospitality industries including chefs, managers, and executives to discuss their unique experiences, commitment to their craft, and their desire to give back to the community. Charter member Craig Gilbert and student Geovannie Saucedo, from ECF, attended the dinner.
Q&A with Chef Saul Ortiz — Born to be a Chef Corporate Executive Chef Saul Ortiz served up an array of traditional Mexican dishes, with a unique twist, at Tacos & Tequila. Tacos and Tequila opened in 2008 and is located inside the Luxor Hotel and Casino. This interview was also conducted in partnership with the Marketing Project, a social media marketing company.
Born and raised in Mexico City, Chef Ortiz was destined for a culinary career. “I was born in the kitchen, and maybe it could be instinct, I don’t know,” Chef Ortiz jokes, “but I gravitate a lot towards smells and flavors.”
Chef Ortiz made a lot of baked breads, dried meats, and sausages as an Italian chef for 7 years before he realized it only made sense to go back to his roots of traditional Mexico City style cooking. Being the man who has called the shots in the kitchen at Tacos & Tequila since 2008, Chef Ortiz and his team have been dedicated to having the same objective every day, which is continuously looking for ways to improve new flavors and open peoples’ eyes. Not only to make sure expectations are met, but to exceed them.
“We understand that the rabbit size portions are a part of modern presentation and flavor profiling, but for me, we want you to leave feeling like you got your money’s worth.” Said Chef Ortiz, “I don’t think we’re the absolute best. I don’t believe in that because there is always room for improvement. If you deem yourself the best, you won’t have the desire to be the best of the best.” We sat down with Chef Ortiz at the Epicurean Charitable Foundations dinner to talk cooking at home, working amongst renowned chefs in a culinary capital of the world, and the importance of staying humble.
The Marketing Project: What’s your favorite food when you’re not here?
Chef Ortiz: I really like home cooking, I’ll use whatever I have in the fridge. I mean, I do like to stick with a lot of Latin and a lot of Asian… Mexican food, sushi, grilled fish, barbecue… But a majority of food I make at home is Mexican.
TMP: What’s your least favorite flavor?
Chef Ortiz: Honestly, fish sauce. Too much fish sauce gets to me. I cannot take it. TMP: So what turns you on creatively? Chef Ortiz: For chefs like me, it’s all about being adventurous so what turns me on creatively is a desire to know more about flavor profiling consistency. That’s a chef’s biggest nightmare, so anything to me that I can try to better or maintain, that’s my inspiration. Internal desire.
TMP: When I see your presentations, you’re very creative. For this style of cooking I’ve noticed your plates are very eye appealing.
Chef Ortiz: That’s part of the cuisine they’ve been doing for a while, modern Mexican. It’s basically a dish put together with a majority of authentic Mexican ingredients, but with a nice presentation. Clear plates, more like the way things are supposed to be in a gourmet restaurant. We don’t believe in an ice ring of beans with melted cheese on top.
TMP: I just came back from Mexico yesterday actually and I couldn’t wait to get back here, especially with your cooking.
Chef Ortiz: It depends where you go in Mexico that you’ll get certain cuisines, certain styles, and believe me that makes a huge difference.
Chef Ortiz: Yes, where’d you go?
TMP: Sea of Cortez.
Chef Ortiz: Ah, north. The more you move north the less essence you get from the center of Mexico. In the center of Mexico you get the Mayan culture, you get the Oaxaca culture, you get all those cultures of food. From our history we’ve had people from the Middle East, from Germany, all these people have eradicated in Mexico City. I’m telling you, the food I’ve had in Mexico City is above and beyond. From flavors to food to the way they execute, it’s just amazing. The more you move up north, they have great things, but to me gastronomy in the heart of Mexico… as a chef I’ve traveled around and I’m telling you, it’s second to none.
TMP: What do you find most satisfying being in the kitchen?
Chef Ortiz: One, relating to all the flavors and all the aromas that bring back memories like running through my grandma’s kitchen and smelling the peppers being roasted. It feels like home. I think even though I’m far away from Mexico and I’ve been in the states for over 20 years, my heart is always craving those memories. I guess it’s like getting homesick. When you get homesick, you go back home. For us, when we move up here, we go back and forth eventually but we eradicate so our lives are here. You crave those memories so me being a chef, I can recreate those memories and it gives me a lot of joy.
TMP: Who was your inspiration to become a chef?
Chef Ortiz: It’s funny actually. I was born on May 24th and in May, it’s rainy season in Mexico City. My mother couldn’t make it to the hospital, so she gave birth to me in the kitchen because that was the warmest place in the house. My mother had made this elaborate meal with my grandma the night before so the house was full of aromas. As a kid, I was always in the kitchen tasting and running.
TMP: What’s your process in creating a dish?
Chef Ortiz: First of all, having a solid base with cheese flavor profiling and deciding if it’s going to be fish, chicken, beef — and then of course having the right ingredients to put it together. You have to figure out what you’re looking for — do you want a crispy dish? Do you want a spicy dish? Do you want a savory dish? Do you want it sweet? Do you want it salty? You start working on your profiles and what you want to present. You can take things out, you can add things in, and that’s what’s great about cooking. It’s like you’re painting and you can redo it over and over again. There’s never one right way. Food doesn’t have to stay in one specific way. Yes recipes can be messed up, but they can be better. For example, caesar dressing. Everyone knows caesar dressing has anchovies as the foundation. If someone wants to do something else as the base, it will either make it better or worse.
TMP: Let me ask, what advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?
Chef Ortiz: First of all, this industry is amazing. This industry you’ve got to understand that we are here pretty much to represent a whole culture of chefs. It’s above and beyond one of the best industries because you do the best things, which is eating and socializing. The industry is very strong because you get to meet people, get to enjoy people, and get to be surrounded by great employees. You’re going to have everything, but the best thing you can do is have customer service as a priority because that’s our base. Second of all, you’re creating the atmosphere and ambiance for people to feel welcomed whether it’s food or beverage. Learn everything you’ve got to about cooking methods, be humble, and work hard because once someone hands you a pen to start writing your own story on your flavors, you’ve got to project that. Whatever you want to do, go for it. If there’s a trend you want to try, do it. I might look old [he laughs] but I know all about the fancy molecular gastronomy. Traditional Mexican cooking and ingredients is just what I enjoy. Don’t think you’ll get the fame right away, you need to work really hard.
TMP: What’s your favorite thing about teaching the next generation?
Chef Ortiz: They’re so eager to learn! I love passing the knowledge. I was once someone who wanted to learn. I always used to get so frustrated because people didn’t want to take the time or put in the effort to help me out.
TMP: What are the pros and cons of working in this town? I mean, it’s one of the culinary capitals of the world.
Chef Ortiz: You cannot sleep with both eyes closed! [He laughs] You’ve got to sleep with one eye open, meaning you’ve got to know how to move. I mean I’ve got Hubert Keller, I’ve got Rick Moonen, I’ve got Robuchon. I’ve got all these people around me, you think I have time to be like “Oh if the beans are burning let’s just say screw it and let them burn.” No you still need to make sure those are the best beans people have.
TMP: So is it a competition?
Chef Ortiz: Oh absolutely and that’s good. See, competition is two ways. I mean, you can take it as it’s going against someone else, but to me competition is like somebody else is trying to outdo us or put me down. That’s how I approach it because then I can react to it. If you get comfortable with competition, you go to sleep.
TMP: Who were your earliest influences?
Chef Ortiz: Oh my gosh. Richard Sandoval, which is my mentor. Aaron Sanchez, which I met when I worked in New York. He had his restaurant with his mom down the street. Rick Bayless, a great friend of mine. Chef Nico from Valhalla, Mexico — great, amazing guy. Chef Manny from Mexico City. Just a lot of people that I know from my past have really influenced me. All these people have given me a stage to put on a show and I couldn’t be more grateful.
TMP: What’s your go to dish? Let’s say you’ve got people coming over to the house — what do you roll out?
Chef Ortiz: I do these killer tostadas with tinga. Skillet tostadas with tinga, which is actually something we do right here, I’ll do chorizo with a pinto bean spread. I add really fine lettuce, cheese, chicken stewed in tomatoes, chipotle, and onion. I put that on top and do my own crèma fresca with cilantro and a piece of avocado. Insane.
For the courses at the epicurean dinner, Chef Ortiz chose dishes that really focused on incorporating true Mexico City style techniques and flavors.
For the first dish it was a traditional Mexico City style guacamole.
“In Mexico City we don’t use lime for the avocado because it blocks the oils on the inside. Lime juice started because people were too cheap to buy good avocados and they would oxidize quickly so the lime juice kept avocados from the oxidation process. Guacamole should never have lime juice.”
Served with the guacamole is Esquite. This is sweet yellow corn that has been roasted and rehydrated with chicken stock and epazote, an herb that will give the dish more depth, because it dries up a little bit. Cheese, mayonnaise, and spices are then mixed in.
The main course consisted of alambre, a Mexico City favorite.
“Here we’ve got filet mignon and al pastor tacos. The filet mignon taco is basically going to be filet mignon loin, bacon, poblano peppers, and a combination of Gouda, Oaxaca, and jack cheese. Al pastor is pork marinated in spices, citrus, and pineapple — all to die for.”
For dessert we were introduced to chocolate-filled churros.
“It’s served with cajeta which is a goat milk caramel and it’s amazing. It’s one of the best caramels you will ever taste.”
Tacos & Tequila is open Monday through Sunday, 11 AM to 11 PM.