by Andre Natera
We are starting an occasional chef-on-chef interview series. The idea was given to us by chef Andre Natera who recently moved from Dallas to Austin where he is the hotel’s executive chef. We suggested he speak with long time co-worker who is the new executive chef at Komali and Salum, Julio Peraza. Peraza is a heavy weight when it comes to affairs of the kitchen, and has a certain passion and leadership ability that made him the ideal choice for the new post. He also makes for a fun interview.
Chef Julio Peraza, born in El Salvador, began his career by attending the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Upon graduating in 2002, Peraza launched his career as a line cook under the guidance of Chef Joel Guillon at The Argent Hotel in San Francisco, and at Gary Danko Restaurant where he developed his passion for fine dining.
After four years in San Francisco, Chef Peraza traveled extensively and held various positions prior to being promoted to the sous chef position at St. Regis Hotel in Kauai. Two years later, Chef Peraza moved to Las Vegas and worked under Chef Kerry Simon Cathouse as a sous chef. Soon after, he worked as executive sous for Chef David Myers’ Comme Ca located in West Hollywood and at the Cosmopolitan Hotel Las Vegas.
Before moving to Dallas, Chef Peraza was the executive sous chef for Chef Michael Mina at American Fish, located at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas. He has also worked in Dallas with Chef Andre Natera at both Pyramid Restaurant & Bar and Village Kitchen.
Chef Peraza explains, “The food is more up-to-date in Mexico City than most people would probably think, so it was a good starting point for me when I was researching the cuisine. When Chef Salum and I got into the kitchen together, I wanted to take that rich history of amazing food and blend my fine-dining background and modern techniques. We are taking very traditional dishes, but refining what we are putting on the plate. With this menu we wanted to showcase how simple and beautiful the cuisine is, while also taking it to the next level. I am working with the kitchen staff and teaching them that you have to put love on to the plate and into the sauté pan… real serious cooking. I am excited about the changes and look forward to working with Chef Salum and our dedicated team.”
We met at Taqueria Conin located at the corner of Bryan and Carroll in East Dallas. There we all enjoyed a few rounds of tacos, cervesa, and this interesting conversation.
Natera: Julio worked in Las Vegas and has this pedigree. He has worked for the Who’s Who of chefs. Kerry Simon, Michael Mina, Gary Danko, David Myers. Of all these top US chfs, who has been the best?
Peraza: I would say David Myers hands down. His approach and the way he lets chefs run the kitchen. He allows you to be creative, he is very hands on. He cooks with intensity. I had a chance to cook with him in LA.
Natera: He got his first Michelin Star at Sona?
Peraza: Right, Sona in LA. He was also at one time the chef de cuisine for Charlie Trotters. But you look at him and you see this guy who is young and hungry in the business. I learned a lot from him. The way they run their whole brigade it is just amazing.
Natera: When you came to work with me at the Pyramid we incorporated a lot of the things you were doing in Las Vegas into our restaurant which I think helped us get ahead of a lot of other restaurants. The restaurants you were working for in Vegas was structured the TK way, the Thomas Keller way. I needed to surround myself with people thinking at a different level, and this was a perfect match. When you got here you said you wanted to work with some sick food. I just said “run with it”.
Peraza: It is always good when a chef tells you that. My eyes just popped out, really? But Andre, you allowed us to be creative. You know, back in the day a lot of chefs it was just their way. Realistically now, the mor you put things together as a team, the better you become.
Natera: You grew up playing sports.
Peraza: I grew up playing soccer then I played football. A lot of the sports has a lot to do with what we do in the kitchen. I tell my staff now that the way we run a kitchen is lot like soccer. And American football is a good example. If one guy gets behind, it slows everything down. If one player doesn’t block right, the play is over. I think that way a lot when I am running a kitchen. I’ve got to motivate my guys.
Our tacos at Taqueria Conin
Natera: What are you doing now at Komali than what it was before?
Peraza: I am trying to focus now on regional cuisine. A lot of people think that tacos are Mexican cooking. But it’s more sophisticated now. A good example is S. Pellegrino was announced as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. I look at the cuisine and I see the Mayans and the Aztecs. Their approach to food is completely different. I am Salvadoran so my approach is more Mayan just because of what they use. Achiote, the banana leaves, it is kind of like the stuff I grew up with so it is easier for me to understand.
What I am trying to do different is to put real Mexican food on the plate. Not enchiladas. The way Mexican food is presented in the United States is not real Mexican food. Burritos and tacos is not what it is about. It will take some time, and nothing built really good is made over night. But I am teaching my staff to be really proud of what we are doing. We do out own masa, and make the tortillas by hand. There’s a lot of things I am going to have fun with at Komali.
Natera: Julio, you came down with me to Austin for the Food and Wine festival a few weeks ago. We had a blast. We ate at Uchico and saw that there is not really any elaborate presentation and it is executed just perfect. Some sliced vegetable, a little sauce and a garnish. It’s technique driven. It’s not stupid. Julio, your food speaks a lot like that.
Peraza: That is one of the things I learned in Vegas. For really good food you do not need to make it crazy. For eye appeal you want to make it look pretty, but once you put it in your mouth that pretty much speaks for itself. That is pretty much what I learned in Vegas. It is better to allow something to cook a longer period of time with the right ingredients, and present it just the way it is. We’ve got a chochinita pibil on the menu right now that is very traditional. It has chocolate and a bitter orange, and those are the two elements that will make the cochinita. My takeon it is almost like the American Osso Bucco with a pork shank. Banana leave, bitter orange, orange juice, achiote, I put in a little Bohemian beer to balance the acidity. I braise it for four hours and it comes out perfect. I garnish with a little pickled onion to balance everything out. No micro greens!
Natera: Micro greens are great to put on a plate when you run out of things to put on a plate. Put on micro greens. Julio, you are pretty funny. You have a ritual for the new people in the kitchen.
Peraza: When I was in Vegas we did this classic thing for the people that haven’t been in the industry long. In the Cosmopolitan, which has many restaurants, I told this girl to go find a bacon stretcher.She was gone over a half hour and they were sending her all over the hotel to find the stretcher. It was a chain reaction. But she came back and said “pretty funny”. She made it all the way to the banquet kitchen and they laughed at her.
Natera: You have a lot of them. Like when you sent someone to the marquee bar asking for liquid ice. Here’s a bucket of water…
Peraza: I keep it pretty fun, and like to break the ice.
Natera: What are some of the new things we might expect to see at Komali this summer?
Peraza: This summer is is going to be about simplicity. We are going to do a birria served in a consuela. It is a goat dish, and I am testing the recipe. I would love to do the leg. The kitchen is excited about this. I have this kid who is pretty much a charro. A charro dresses in the big hat, tight clothes, big silver buttons. He is a fancy cowboy. Sometimes he goes to the parking lot and does the whole show with ropes. But he is really excited. He is from Jalisco, and the birria is a big thing with his family. And I remember when I started as a cook and got really excited i they added something I came up with. The charro is excited and actually wrote out his family recipe. It looks amazing. We will serve it in a clay pot, and it will taste so much more different.
I am telling my guys that we want to do it the way their grandmother did it. We will refine those recipes and make it ours, but it will have heart and soul. But we are going to do more with lamb, and rabbit.
Natera: What is your favorite dish right now on the menu?
Peraza: I would say the chicken mole. I sous vide the breast and thigh. Sous vide the chicken with the aromatics and it comes out so tender. The mole is made from scratch with 16 ingredients. It is silky to the palette. This is fun for me.
We asked both chefs how you discover a great taqueria, and they laughed in unison. The key is to find a location where you are the only white guy.