“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring … remain poised a long time, like souls…; and bear unflinchingly … the vast structure of recollection.” — Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Chef Carlos Olivar and Michael McDermott are two very different men on two very similar missions. That is, they are both devoted to sharing their love of Mexican cuisine with the people of the Twin Cities metro area. Both Olivar, a Mexican chef born in a small town in Puebla, and McDermott, the son of the founder of the Chi-Chi’s restaurant chain, are fueled by fond childhood memories of Mexico. Nevertheless, like with most culinary conflicts, the main point of contention is a matter of soul.
We first encountered Olivar via a comment on our Churn post about Rojo Mexican Grill, a new restaurant that was set to open in St. Louis Park. Owned by McDermott and his partner, Jason Merritt, Rojo followed on the heels of Sauce Pizza and Wine, their previous venture at the Shops at West End. A quote by McDermott in their press release states, “We wanted to make great, authentic Mexican food more accessible and in an environment that’s warm, comfortable, and familiar.”
Taking on the rugged alias of “Lobo Negro” (“black wolf” for the Spanish-deficient), Olivar challenged, “So they think they have what it takes to do autentic [sic] mexican food … mexican food is not [about] burritos, tacos, and enchiladas, [it’s about] tradition.” He tore into the culinary aesthetic of Rojo and its peers, railing against the supremacy of Tex-Mex in their interpretation of authentic Mexican cuisine.
As it turned out, however, Olivar (pictured below) wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill, pissed-off food blog commenter: He is also the executive chef at Pairings Food & Wine Market in Minnetonka. Despite Pairings’ French bistro theme, Olivar has managed to sneak some Mexican classics onto the regular menu, and also hosts monthly, four-course Mexican beer pairing dinners at the restaurant.
Minnetonka is hardly a Mexican-American community, but Olivar prefers the challenge of educating the Chipotle crowd. “People have come up to me after the beer dinners to say, ‘I didn’t know Mexican food could be like this!'” His menus feature such dishes as a huitlacoche quesadilla (made with Oaxacan cheese, squash flowers, and a rare corn fungus), ceviche, Au Bon Canard duck mole enchiladas, Oaxacan rabbit tamales, and cochinita pibil, or suckling pig slow-roasted in banana leaves.
“I want to combine traditional Mexican cuisine with modern techniques without compromising the soul of the food,” says Olivar. He admits that most traditional Mexican food, while incredibly delicious, is simply “ugly.” “[Mexican] ingredients are beautiful ingredients, and I want the dish to be beautiful, too.”
His approach sounds very similar to McDermott’s, which purports to deliver “authentic … Mexican cuisine with a modern twist.” (By the way, who do we need to talk to in order to get restaurants to stop using the word “twist” in their advertising?) “We wanted to open something that wasn’t your traditional, Mexican-themed restaurant, like Don Pablo’s… Rojo isn’t strictly Mexican, but it feels and looks Mexican.”
Though he didn’t grow up in Mexico, he can still claim a little bit of street cred. “Our family always took trips to Mexico as I was growing up, and we always ate what the locals ate. It was really authentic stuff, and we ate it in the city backstreets.”
He’s no chef, but McDermott designed Rojo’s menu himself. “I grew up around Mexican food. I know what I like and I can look at a recipe and I’ll know if it’ll be successful.” The menu includes tortilla soup, freshly mixed guacamole, enchiladas with pasilla chile sauce, a burger paired with chipotle mayonnaise, and churros, the ubiquitous Spanish doughnut. He and his partner home-tested countless recipes before presenting them to focus groups and tweaking them further; despite that, he maintains that “everything on our menu is authentic.”
McDermott is a veteran of the restaurant business, and has already had a lot of experience feeling out the varying ways in which different American regions receive Mexican cuisine. He and his partner are already working on a second Rojo location in his home state of Arizona, and he admits that the menu will probably diverge from its Minnesota predecessor’s.
“For example, gazpacho soup just wouldn’t work in Minnesota… maybe it’s because of the weather. But in Arizona, gazpacho is huge.” One can only wait and see what Rojo will add to Arizona’s already robust Mexican culinary scene; despite recent backlash against Mexicans themselves, Arizonans are still aficionados of the cuisine.
For both of these men, the search for an “authentic” way to present Mexican food amounts to an obsession. But still, there are limits to the definition. For instance, it would be absurd to expect a restaurateur to have a food historian on speed dial for every menu change.
No, what these two men are grasping at is something much more abstract. Similarly to how Marcel Proust was inspired to write a seven-volume autobiographical novel as he took a bite of a madeleine, these men can be transported back into their childhoods by the taste of an enchilada. How does one measure the soul of a dish? The answer lies in the deep, instinctual triggers that fire in the mind when you taste something that makes you see the trajectory of history and tradition.
Michael McDermott sees his parents, Marno and Chi-Chi McDermott, slinging deep-fried ice cream and chimichangas in suburban Minnesota. Chef Carlos Olivar sees his mother hawking quesadilla on the streets of their small town in Puebla. They may see “authentic” Mexican cuisine in different lights, but for both of them, it means “home.”