This is the first part of a two-part Chef Chat interview. Please visit us tomorrow to read Part 2.
Cinq's German Mosquera is a vegan, but he cooks some mean meat and seafood. Sitting in the stately, refined dining room at Restaurant Cinq at La Colombe d'Or hotel, you would be forgiven if you thought you were in a fine-dining restaurant somewhere in Europe. Indeed, the white linen on the tables and the beautifully appointed paneled room with its elegantly framed paintings would be at home in Barcelona or Paris, and until recently, the menu, offering classics including rack of lamb and lobster bisque, evoked the same feeling.
Executive chef German Mosquera is slowly trying to change all that. Celebrating his one-year anniversary at the restaurant this November, the 28-year-old has been introducing new dishes using new techniques and a more modern approach to food. What's more, Mosquera is vegan, which means that when he's coming up with non-vegan dishes, he's not tasting them.
It may seem impossible, but it's working. His play on "bacon and eggs" in the form of an octopus dish with uni custard is a revelation. Mosquera sat down for a lively chat about his veganism, his approach to the menu and more.
EOW: You're a vegan chef. Have you always been?
GM: No, it's only been the past five years. When I came to Houston, I was more of pescatarian. It started as experimentation when I took a job with Ruggles Green, working to create things for people who had all these dietary restrictions. I wanted to embrace it, and from there, it just grew on me, and me being passionate about the food, it only made sense.
EOW: So you can eat meat, you just choose not to.
GM: I'm lactose intolerant. So no dairy
butter, milk, cheese. Eggs are okay. But essentially, no, I don't eat meat.
EOW: Wow, that must affect how you do things, because you make savory dishes with meat, don't you? How does that work?
GM: So really, the way that came to be is really focusing on the techniques and really understanding the ingredients.
EOW: Do you taste your dishes?
GM: No, I don't.
EOW: So do you have someone else taste them for you?
GM: Yes. But there's things that I'll make an exception for. I won't ingest it, but I'll taste. For instance, when I was making the foie ganache -- a new item on the menu -- I really had to understand the texture, because I had played with foie before as a young cook, but never at the point where I was considering the ideas that I had behind it. But when it comes to meat, really, what I play off of is when we dry-age things. Understanding how we can manipulate the flavor by dry-aging things and bringing out other ingredients. Instead of serving -- you know, in this industry, we can serve shit; no one really looks at what they serve. You check in a product, and then you serve it, and that's it, you go home. And for me, when I became vegan, that totally changed. From understanding where the vegetables are coming from, what the soil is about, the history of the farmer and what his ideals were. And then of course the region. Because one of the most important things I learned when I was training in New York and Spain, and around the world, is that it's not the technique; it's the regionality of what you can bring from your own home. That's what brings out flavor.
EOW: We're in Houston, near the Gulf Coast. Educate us on what we can get.
GM: Thankfully we're in Texas, where we can mimic a good growing season all year round. I'm thankful that kale grows most of the year here, except summer.
EOW: So kale, don't buy it in the summer.
GM: Yeah, you're not gonna find it. If you do, it's not from around here. And that's been the challenge here with La Colombe d'Or, showing them what seasonality truly means in the region. I had this conversation just the other day with Mr. Zimmerman [Steve Zimmerman, the owner of La Colombe d'Or] about eggplant. He was like, "Can't you just buy it?" I was like, "Yes, but we can't just get it at some random place." I don't buy it anymore because it doesn't taste good. So even though it's in season, it's not at its peak, it's at its end. So that's what I mean by regionality -- understanding your region, knowing what's at its peak, not just what's growing at that point in time.
EOW: What do we have in winter?
GM: We have root vegetables, squash; we still have the dark leafy greens, like the kale, the broccoli; it still survives the cold. And then spring, we have carrots, still a lot of root vegetables, onions, garlic. Oh my God, the garlic is amazing. Knopp Ranch Farm does a really good job and they just started planting right now their elephant garlic. So, right now, they are doing shallots. So usually in the kitchen, you'll find chopped garlic, chopped onions, but in my kitchen, I'll only use them when they're in season or if I've dried them out and stored them. I just actually ran out of all my garlic, so we are now garlicless. What I'm highlighting now is Louisiana shallots; they look like green onions, but they are young shallots. So, in order to stay truly seasonal, we have to work ahead of the season, or behind the season by storing things, or pickling things or drying things.
EOW: La Colombe D'Or: Is it still French fine dining?
GM: No. We're at a turning point in this menu. What I've been able to accomplish is to take us away from this idea of why are we doing French food when we're not in France. What makes French food good? Being in France, getting the French produce. The techniques are there; I'm classically trained in French cuisine, but it's not French cuisine. It's French technique done here. So I take the technique and expand it and utilize its full spectrum from end to start. It's more taking back the techniques of nature and what's been going on forever and bringing it back.
EOW: For instance...
GM: For instance, pickling has been going on forever. On the new menu here, we've taken the goat, which used to be braised with a foam on there. And now, since we get the whole animal and I've been able to train with it throughout the year, I've been able to break it to where I can take the legs and the shoulder to make a pastrami, and the loins and belly I ground to make a winter sausage, so it mimics a salami. So that goat dish, which started at a high-end, sort of scientific approach to it, has now been brought back.
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EOW: The question I'm going for is really: If I had this idea of La Colombe d'Or as French fine dining, and I opened up the menu, what would I see?
GM: We're still in a transition period. You'd still see a lobster bisque, which is a classic, but for appetizers you'll also see the newer concepts of goat or foie, the rabbit ham, the octopus. The octopus is treated like an eggs and bacon dish. The octopus is treated like bacon, so it's braised and cured with salt and sugar. And then the custard, where the egg comes into play is with the sea urchin. Sea urchin has those nice floral eggy flavors when it's cooked.
EOW: How about for an entrée? You're still doing meat, fish, vegetarian?
GM: Yes, we're still doing the classic setup, but the ideas are now in transition. You'll still find the classic rack of lamb, and the Chateaubriand, which has been here forever. And from there, you'll find the newer dishes like the duck; it's an applewood- and hickory-smoked duck breast, served with a pain perdu and sunroot jam. Fish, we still have the snapper, which is classically done with a beurre blanc, but we're also doing a fresh catch of the day, which is brought in from the Gulf. Right now we have a grouper served with a custard of deeply toasted oats and charred mushrooms. Really simple and clean but focused on the flavors around it.