Why aren’t more Latinos spearheading their own food movement? It’s a question that Los Angeles Mexican chef Henry Orellana is trying to answer. The topic is certainly emotionally charged: he tells me he is “completely irked” that Mexican cuisine is continually portrayed as simply a “taco and burrito stand culture,” although he acknowledges that in some ways “we’ve [Mexicans] allowed it to happen.” Orellana is fighting against the notion that Mexican food is just eating burritos at 2.am after a night of drinking: “It can and should be part of the gastronomic landscape,” he asserts.
For Orellana, restaurants claiming to deliver upscale Mexican food feel as though something is missing. “Most times, the person conceptualizing [these restaurants] is white,” he tells me. “90% of the people actually cooking the food are Mexican, but they don’t feel like it’s their food and they wouldn’t eat there themselves.” He adds, “It’s not a race thing, it’s a culture thing. People forget that cooking is more to do with being immersed in a culture or tradition than anything else.”
Orellana believes that “one of the most intimate acts is sharing food with someone. You’re presenting more than just what’s on the plate–your culture, your heritage, and how you grew up. It’s hard to clone that.” He concedes that if chefs approach another culture’s cuisine with humility they can still do it justice, citing Rick Bayless as an example. Bayless, the best-known white chef of Mexican food, has been criticized for capitalizing on a cuisine that is not of his own heritage, even though he spent years cooking and learning all over Mexico before opening restaurants in the US.
Long known as a hub of Mexican food, the Los Angeles dining scene has been gaining recent national traction in many respects. Orellana is reconciling his place within this growing culinary realm as both a chef and a diner, bringing to light some of the city’s culinary shortcomings. Hollywood money and attitudes influence what is coming out of the kitchen, with dishes that seem too indicative of trends and investor desires rather than chef originality: “I’ve had a lot of pretty food that felt cold, like someone just put it on the plate.” He contends that if he can perceive the time and care a cook put into the food, it doesn’t matter what kind of cuisine he is eating: “It’s got to have soul.”
Although he is critical of “soulless” food, Orellana has had some recent memorable meals in LA. He mentions The Bellwhether, a New American eatery in Studio City; Augustine, a wine bar in Sherman Oaks; and most notably Maradentro, a Mexican restaurant. Orellana laughs, “I wanted to hate it.” The exact opposite happened–the dishes moved him to tears: “It was the first time I ate food that tasted like my mom could have made it, but it also looked pretty.” The carnitas were the stand-out item, reminding him of the ones his uncle José makes and coincidentally entitled “Uncle José’s Carnitas” on Maradentro’s menu.
The moment Orellana speaks of his family, it’s clear they have been integral to his personal journey as a chef. His mother is his harshest critic. She doesn’t hesitate to give Orellana honest feedback or pepper him with questions when he serves her the dishes of his childhood. Her mole sauce, he maintains, is legendary. It’s the dish he asks for on every birthday and it’s the one he was most nervous about perfecting. After testing eleven batches, he finally allowed his mom a taste. She tried a spoonful, looked at him, nodded slightly, and said, “This is pretty good.” She never mentioned it again.
The sauce “is my mom on a plate,” Orellana says. It’s one of his definitive triumphs as a chef, but he says he struggles to replicate many of her other recipes. He believes this has something to do with sazón, the “soul” of the food and the inexplicable “x-factor” of dishes passed down through generations. According to Orellana, it’s more of a spiritual concept rather than a physical ingredient his mother adds to her food, and he says it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how it occurs. Similarly, there are dishes his grandmother cooks that his mother can’t entirely reproduce, even after following an exact recipe.
Diving into his past yielded a deeper appreciation of Mexican cuisine’s complexity, from dishes dating back to pre-colonization to others that echo a mix of indigenous and Spanish cultures. Orellana describes his food as modern but still fiercely allegiant to his roots. The interplay of protein and plants on the plate particularly interests him, which is where he derived the title of his pop-up concept, “Wolf and Blossom.” The “wolf” symbolizes the primordial need to hunt, while the “blossom” represents accompanying flora. Although the menus contain protein, vegetables often become the focal point, which is reminiscent of the type of diet Orellana consumed growing up. Meat was eaten sparingly because it was expensive, so vegetables or grains became the basis of most meals.
Beyond his family, Orellana says his vision as a chef has also been influenced by the “hodge-podge” of cultures in urban Los Angeles. The preparation of his dishes is primarily Mexican, but he often sources ingredients, creates flavors, and utilizes techniques that were mostly absent from his mother’s kitchen. A dish that exemplifies this is “Pork in the Field,” or pork riblets (costillitas) usually cooked with a spicy salsa for an hour or two.
Orellana’s variation involves braising the costillitas in tequila and poblano peppers, then serving the tender meat over a spiced persimmon and mascarpone purée. “Although persimmon is not unfamiliar to Mexican cuisine,” Orellana notes, “It is definitely not something used very often. In this recipe, it is given more of a Moroccan treatment by stewing it in […] cinnamon, cumin, paprika, and clove before folding [it] into the mascarpone.” He ties the dish together with a salad of watercress and radishes, which are ingredients found quite frequently in Mexican cuisine.
A dish like “Pork in the Field” might seem like just a simple and tasty plate. But in reality, it represents the passion and past of a chef, a piece of a diverse culinary landscape, and the fight to validate a culture’s identity. And Orellana is certainly a fighter. Perhaps it’s his own personal brand of sazón, his heritage and the story of his family deliciously splashed on to the backdrop of urban Los Angeles.