For Prized Chef, Mexican Food is the Real Star

Interior of Casa Enrique in Long Island City, the first Latino restaurant in NY to earn a coveted star from the Michelin Guide. (Photo by Paloma Cacho-Sousa)

Interior of Casa Enrique in Long Island City, the first Latino restaurant in NY to earn a coveted star from the Michelin Guide. (Photo by Paloma Cacho-Sousa)

The day he was awarded a star from the Michelin Guide – the first ever for a Mexican restaurant in New York City – Casa Enrique’s chef Cosme Aguilar wasn’t in the mood to pick up the phone.

Ethnic Eats-04“I was very sad because for two consecutive years we had a Bib Gourmand (the famed gastronomic guide’s recommendation for inexpensive restaurants), and this year we were not on the list,” says Aguilar, 38. “I thought: ‘Why did they take that away from me?’ I was perfectly happy with it; I wasn’t looking for a star.”

The morning of the Michelin Guide 2015 Star Gala on Sept. 30, when the awards were announced, Aguilar went to work and didn’t pay attention to his cell phone. “My brother [Luis, the restaurant’s executive manager] called me on the kitchen phone – I always answer that one – and told me: ‘Guess what? You got a star!’ I thought he was pulling my leg, and I said: ‘Stop making jokes, I’m not in the mood.’ So he kept repeating it until I started to grasp it.”

For the small restaurant in Long Island City, which opened in 2012, it was an unexpected triumph. Sitting in the sparsely-decorated eatery with bare white walls and a large communal table, Aguilar says he still can’t believe it. “How many Mexican restaurants in New York or famous chefs who are on TV would like to have a star?” he wonders.

To be fair, Chef César Ramírez, born in Mexico and raised in Chicago, was awarded three Michelin stars for his Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare restaurant, where he serves international cuisine. However, Casa Enrique, specializing in food from the Chiapas region of Mexico, is the only Latin American restaurant in New York to win the coveted star.

It is easy to see what piqued the interest of the famously anonymous Michelin critics. Not always listed among the appetizers, the scallops with chorizo – Chef Aguilar’s own creation – are a surprisingly harmoniously mix. The ceviche is exceptionally fresh and citrusy, and regional dishes such as the cochinito chiapaneco (a family recipe of fall-off-the-bone pork ribs) and mole de Piaxtla (chicken covered with a spicy chocolate-based sauce) burst with color and flavor.

Award-winning chef Cosme Aguilar, in the kitchen of Casa Enrique (Photo by Paloma Cacho-Sousa)

Award-winning Chef Cosme Aguilar, in the kitchen of Casa Enrique (Photo by Paloma Cacho-Sousa)

Aguilar, who was interviewed for Voices of NY in Spanish, credits the restaurant’s success to hard work and a dedicated staff of four kitchen assistants, who hail from different parts of Mexico. One of them is Mario Ibarra, a 27-year-old from Puebla who, like Aguilar, does not have formal training as a cook. According to Ibarra, who started out washing dishes, the focus at Casa Enrique is on true Mexican flavors.

“Cosme is always asking: ‘How do you make that in Puebla?’, and we use his ideas from Chiapas and our ideas from Puebla to make the dishes,” says Ibarra, who pointed out that both cuisines are quite similar. “Here, we make mole de Piaxtla, which we call mole poblano. We make it sweeter than in Puebla, where it is hotter.”

Aguilar says that anybody could replicate his dishes just by shopping at the city’s Mexican grocery stores. “If I tell you where to go, you can get it. Although sometimes they hold some things just for me,” he says with a smile.

Aguilar gets most of his ingredients from a local importer of Mexican produce, and is able to obtain all but a few items he would like to use. “I would love to have chipilín, a Mexican plant that we use to make tamales in Cintalapa. But it turns out it’s illegal in the U.S. It has a marijuana-like effect,” he laughs.

Cintalapa, in the predominantly indigenous southern state of Chiapas, is where Cosme Aguilar was born. “It’s a beautiful town,” he says. “Very small. I think everybody knows each other.” His mother Blanca used to own a small restaurant there. She closed it when she started a family but continued to cook large meals to cater for people who threw parties on the weekends.

The youngest of six siblings, Aguilar grew up in a house with a large patio and livestock. “I was too little and too cowardly to kill the animals, but I remember my older brothers killing the goats,” he says. “I remember clearly when my mother cooked, but she died when I was seven.” He later moved with his father to San Luis Potosí, in central Mexico, where he studied auto mechanics and opened an auto parts store. “Like Pep Boys, only smaller.”

In 1998, he moved to New York, initially for a brief period of time. “I didn’t come here to be a chef. I came here for six months, and then I was supposed to go back,” he says. “My idea was to make money and renovate my auto parts store, but I stayed.”

He first got a job cleaning, doing the night shift at the fashionable French restaurant Le Solex, in Chelsea. After one chef suggested that he work in the kitchen, Aguilar worked his way up. He became a chef himself, and built an impressive résumé featuring some of New York’s best French restaurants, including Orsay and Les Deux Gamins – where he worked for eight years.

The story of Casa Enrique began 12 years ago when, while working at Les Deux Gamins, Aguilar met restaurateur Winston Kulok. Along with his brother Luis, they started a fruitful association that culminated in the opening of two locations of Café Henri – the original in the West Village, now closed, and one in Long Island City – as well as the short-lived Bar Henry, a “New York City-style steakhouse with cosmopolitan American food,” in Kulok’s words.

“It then became clear that we were destined to open a Mexican restaurant. We were ready, willing and able. We had a very gifted, sensitive and creative chef in Cosme, and a very talented executive manager in his brother Luis,” said Kulok via email.

Casa Enrique's Mole de Piaxtla (Photo by Paloma Cacho-Sousa)

Casa Enrique’s mole de Piaxtla (Photo by Paloma Cacho-Sousa)

The only thing was that – after more than a decade honing his French cuisine skills – when Casa Enrique opened in 2012, it was Aguilar’s first Mexican restaurant.

“We initially thought of doing a French bistro, but my brother was very confident about Mexican food,” says Aguilar. “But I had never worked with Mexican food! I knew how to cook it at home, but I didn’t know how to do it as a business.”

One of the first things he did was to call his older sister Adriana, who had all the family recipes. However, he noticed that some local ingredients didn’t quite match his childhood memories.

“There’s a difference between Mexican chiles and the ones you find here,” he says. For example, the cochinito recipe uses only one kind of chile – guajillo – but Aguilar found that it wasn’t hot enough. “So I added some chile puya and some árbol to make it hotter.”

Aguilar is also very particular about his tortillas, which are small, thin, slightly toasted, and custom-made by a local provider. “Many restaurants say they have homemade tortillas, but, you know what? They buy the flour, add water and put them in the heat. And that’s not hand-made; that is an instant tortilla,” he says. “I have this friend who has a tortilla company, and he makes them from scratch especially for me, following my instructions.”

As an immigrant, the chef has witnessed the city’s Mexican restaurant boom. “When I arrived here, there weren’t many Mexican restaurants. In the past six or seven years, there has been a growth in the [offer of] cuisine from Puebla and Mexico City, but not from other regions,” he says.

Yet, his biggest issue with Mexican restaurants in New York, he says, is that they often forgo true Mexican flavors in order to appeal to gringo tastes. “Some people tell me: ‘These tacos are dry,’ and I say: ‘What happens is that you are used to eating tacos with sour cream, lettuce and tomato on top, but this is not what they serve you in Mexico.'”

Cosme says he’s eaten at Chipotle maybe two times in his life. “I’m not a fast food kind of guy,” he says, politely.


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