Aquiles Chávez was holding his face next to a bottle of Bigote Mexican wine and smiling for the camera. "Bigote" means "mustache" in Spanish, and the label design is a facsimile of his famous eyes and mustache. Produced in limited quantity in Mexico, where it's bottled just for him, it's one of the many things he might introduce to you when you visit his restaurant, La Fisheria.
The night that we met for this story, he introduced me to a whole bunch of items from his new menu. He was passionate and animated as he described the octopus chips, an appetizer of braised octopus that is finished on the grill and served atop a house-made potato chip with guacamole and topped off with a drizzle of special house-made Mexican chile oil.
He watched my eyes light up as I chewed on the crispy-chewy-smoky-spicy-creamy chip, delighted in my enjoyment. His obvious love of food is one of the things you'll fall in love with when you meet Chávez. I've had the pleasure of dining with him on a few occasions now, each time learning more about the flavors of real Mexican cuisine, marveling at how he uses local products (the octopus is from Galveston) to create dishes from his homeland.
"Texans are so proud to be Texan, they are so proud to be Houstonian. When I say that the meat that we use in the restaurant is Angus beef from Texas, the salt we use is from Galveston, all the seafood we use is from Galveston, the olive oil is from Lubbock -- they are so proud and they say, 'Thank you for using our local products.'"
This is what he is known for, after all -- applying French techniques to local ingredients to create a modern, vibrant Mexican cuisine. It was his use of a local specialty ingredient, gar, that propelled him to fame while he was in his hometown of Villahermosa, in the state of Tabasco. (Gar is a fish known for its voracious appetite and needle-like teeth.)
At the time, Chávez, who had gone to France for a three-month cooking course at Alain Ducasse's ADF, returned to his home state thinking that he would make French food. Finding it difficult to source French ingredients, he started using Mexican products, then switched from making French cuisine to focusing on Mexican cuisine. It was a big hit. This led to an invitation to screen-test for the Latin American network Utilisima, which cast him for the cooking show El Toque de Aquiles (Aquiles's Top Chef). After five successful seasons, Aquiles went on to star in a travel cooking show, Aquilisimo, in which he traveled around Mexico in pursuit of food and culture. He is Latin America's answer to Anthony Bourdain.
And yet, at the height of his fame, in 2011, he left his country, moving his family lock, stock and barrel to Houston, escaping what he described as escalating violence and an attempted kidnapping.
"What made you decide to move to Houston, specifically? Why not L.A. or New York City?" I asked.
"To be honest, I moved to Houston because of Mirna," he replied, crediting his friend of ten years and business partner, Mirna Cox. Cox, who was a fan of Chávez's cuisine before they became friends, said that they'd talked about opening a restaurant in Houston since well before Chávez became a TV sensation. "My husband is from Del Rio in West Texas," she explained. "He always said, 'When we have money, we will open a restaurant with Aquiles in Houston.'"
Fast-forward a year and a half. The reality show Aquiles en Houston, which followed Chávez's transition from Villahermosa to Houston, has aired throughout Latin America. La Fisheria has become a destination not just for local foodies, but for Latin Americans visiting Houston from Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Guatemala, and all across Mexico.
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"Before he was a Mexican chef, and people liked him. But moving to Houston has been a platform for him," said Cox. "He's the first Mexican chef who went out of the country, starting from the beginning to become a real success. People want to come see him, to support what he is doing."
Lately he's been traveling a lot, making television appearances around the country and working on plans for three more La Fisheria restaurants, slated to open in Playa del Carmen, Villahermosa and Mexico City.
Asked if he plans to relocate back to Mexico, Chávez answered with a firm no.
"We spent three days in Mexico City a month ago to take care of our papers with the embassy. When we were in Mexico City, we were so happy because we got to eat real Mexican street food. But after the second day, my kids and my wife said, 'I miss my home.' Then, when we got back to Houston and we opened the doors, my kids and my wife, they said, 'Oh, we are so glad to be home!' It is not our house; it is our home. Right now, Houston is our home."