Over the next few weeks we will be introducing our new class of Chefs to Watch for 2016. Today we have a Q&A with Chef Gabriel Balderas of El Cabo Verde. On October 20, 2016, we will host a dinner to showcase the talents and achievements of our 2016 Chefs to Watch in the New Orleans French Quarter at Marche´. Tickets to the dinner can be purchased online here.
Chefs to Watch: You’re biography lists cooking stints in Birmingham, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. Where have you cooked in those cities and who have you worked with?
Gabriel Balderas: I moved to Tennessee from Mexico when I was a teenager, and spent eight or nine years in Birmingham. I was fortunate enough to work with Chris Hastings and Frank Stitt in Birmingham, and that gave me my love for restaurant cooking.
I went to Washington, DC, next and worked with Michel Richard. He owned Central and Citronelle, and he had a great network of French chefs who came to Washington to work with him. After DC, I worked in a little Mexican taqueria in Chicago, and then in New York at Fleishers Craft Butch shop where I learned whole animal butchery.
I’ve staged all over the place as well, working for a few weeks at a time at some of the great restaurants in the US. I want to learn as much as I can from the older guys. They don’t mind sharing and you can’t get that sort of experience any other way. It’s also great for networking.
CTW: What brought you to Shreveport?
GB: I was supposed to move to New Orleans, but Katrina put a stop to that. At first I was sort of on-call for a move to New Orleans, but then Shreveport became home. Shreveport is a small city, but there are real advantages. You can source quality ingredients and promote local in the area. It’s also fun to bring something that Shreveport does not have. There are great opportunities to make relationships in a place like Shreveport. My time in Shreveport has been very impactful.
CTW: With the fine-dining experience that you’ve had, why did you decide to cook Mexican-style street food?
GB: I’m from a region in Mexico where we make everything from scratch. We source our own ingredients, we make it all. I did not grow up with a microwave. That’s the culture I grew up in.
Going from fine dining to Mexican is not that big a change. It’s all about the essence of the ingredient. A street taco can be as good as a $30-$40 dollar dish. You can always make a $30 taco, it just depends on the ingredients that go into it.
It’s more a question about perception than anything. We take the same approach at El Cabo Verde as we did at the high-end restaurants where I’ve worked in the past.
CTW: What Louisiana ingredients are most similar to traditional Mexican ingredients?
GB: We have a lot of ingredients that are very similar and our cooking is very similar. Chayote squash is very popular in Mexico, and here we call it Mirliton. You can fry, steam, or puree it. Corn is another ingredient popular across the South that is very Mexican.
Interestingly, okra is very similar to cactus. The taste and the texture are the same. You cook okra the same way you cook cactus. They have a very similar consistency.
CTW: What Latin-American ingredient do you wish you had better access to in the States?
GB: We have a lot of aromatic herbs in Mexican cooking that are not readily available in the US. Epazote is one herb, it’s like the basil of Italian cuisine for Mexican cooking. We add it to beans and rice because it limits the amount of gas the legumes create. It adds flavor, but also helps your stomach.
We also use avocado leaves for flavoring. You ad them to soups, salsa, beans, mostly dishes that are stewed. Avocado grows well in New Orleans, the humidity is right. Someone could come in and make avocados for everyone so we would not have to get them all from California.
Insects are another ingredient you don’t see much in the US. In Mexico, people eat grasshopper, as well as the insects that live inside the agave plant. In the US, insects are just becoming something people will think about eating.
CTW: Are you excited about visiting any restaurants in New Orleans while you are in town for the Chefs to Watch dinner on October 20th?
GB: I’d love to go to La Provence. Eric Loos, the chef there, has always been very welcoming to me, he’s traveled a lot just like I have. And of course Shaya, it’s one of the best restaurants in the South. I know quite a few chefs in South Louisiana, and I hope to visit a few more of them on my swing through the area.
CTW: When does your brick and mortar version of El Cabo Verde open?
GB: The restaurant will open in the middle of October. I’m excited about showcasing our regional ingredients and being able to provide another choice to the people of North Louisiana. We are also launching at the same time a farming program where we can grow some of our own ingredients. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for eight years, and now we’ll be able to harvest some ingredients ourselves.