Chef Chat, Part 2: Aquiles Chavez of La Fisheria
Aquiles Chavez poses with big smile in front of La Fisheria's festive blue dining room.
Photos by Mai Pham
Yesterday, we chatted with owner and Executive Chef Aquiles Chavez of La Fisheria about attending school in France with Alain Ducasse and about his famous mustache. Today, we talk about his TV shows and the food he's making at La Fisheria.
EOW: So, when Utilisima called you, what kind of show did you do for them?
AC: The first show was Aquiles Top Chef, El Toque de Aquiles. We had five seasons, starting with 26 episodes. The last season we had 46 episodes.
EOW: So you aired almost every week!
AC: Yes, and then we made a new show, called Aquilisimo. It was a road trip around Mexico. The focus was on the history behind the food, behind the restaurant, the cooks, and the people that go to the restaurants. We went to family restaurants. For example, I go to the owner of the restaurant and say, "Your pozole is the most wonderful pozole in town, you have 40 years in the place." And the old lady would say, "Yes, of course, I started when I was 20, then we married and then my husband died, and now I'm a widow." "Do you remember some customers?" "Yes, I remember this kid; he used to hate my pozole when he was little, but now he is my best customer and he brings his kids."
EOW: So, why Houston?
AC: Because I met Mirna (one of Chavez's partners). I met Mirna eight years ago, first as my customer. They loved my food, they said my food was wonderful, and the first time I met her husband, Jim, he said he was going to help me open a restaurant in Houston. Jim is from Texas, but Mirna is from Mexico.
EOW: I thought I read that you came here for political asylum.
AC: Yes, but not really political asylum. It was because of the violence. They tried to kidnap me. They weren't successful, but they tried. One time they were following me in two big trucks. Of course, when they follow in a huge truck, it's not to say hello. They want something. They robbed my house in Villahermosa one time. That was the key to say, "I'm going to move to the United States."
EOW: You've been here (in Houston) for how long?
AC: We arrived officially in November. We made another show in Houston. It's called Aquiles in Houston. It's a reality show about my family, about my restaurant and, of course, all of my life. It started when we moved to Houston from Villahermosa. It will air sometime beginning May on the Fox Latin network. You can see it on Dish Latino and DirectTV.
Chavez in the kitchen.
EOW: Let's talk about this restaurant. I love La Fisheria, but it's not a real word.
AC: No, it's not. I invented this word...You know the Spanglish? All Latin Americans in U.S., they speak Spanglish. They take an English word and try to make it a Spanish word. Like the place you wash your clothes, they call "washateria." The guy who fixes the roof, they call "rufero;" the truck, they call "troca;" the market, they call "marketa."
EOW: So, La Fisheria is the fish?
AC: It's like the place where we can sell fish.
EOW: But you don't just sell fish here!?
AC: No, but most of the menu is fish. When we designed the place, the focus was to make a place that was completely different to Houston, because Houston is not a cozy city. I want to explain. There's too much concrete, it's too tough. Do you remember the movie The Wizard of Oz? The beginning of the movie is black and white, and then they go to Oz and it's all in color. I wanted a splash of color in the city of concrete.
EOW: I love your food. I was thinking as I was coming here that it's like a breath of fresh air. That we needed something new. But coming the first time, I had this expectation of Mexican food, but it's not exactly Mexican because you have this French influence.
AC: No, no no, but it is completely Mexican food. It's Mexican cuisine with culinary techniques from around the world. The food is completely Mexican. The lunch menu is popular Mexican. You can buy ceviches, tostadas, tacos, pasteles. It's not pretentious.
EOW: In Mexico, where would you find this kind of food?
AC: In the mercado, on the street. You know how you eat a hot dog on the street in a trolly, you can eat the lunch menu in the corner. The lady has charcoal with some grease with some frying and makes tacos, quesadillas, tostadas a la minuta. Even in these places, the plates are plastic plates covered with a piece of paper. That's why I put a piece of paper on the plate, and just the tostada. "No puse nada que no tenga que ir." I don't put anything on the plate that doesn't need to be there. But at night it is different.
Chavez drinks an agua de Jamaica, one of the signature nonalcoholic drinks at La Fisheria.
EOW: Tell me about the night.
AC: The food is more fancy, but not the ambience. We want all people to come to La Fisheria. We don't want it to be a fancy and exclusive restaurant. I believe you can't be denied the right to come to La Fisheria. I want you to come to La Fisheria, be comfortable and be happy. I tell you this story. Two days ago, three guys came wearing suits, very formal. I thought they were bankers or CEOs or something. They came for lunch and drank margaritas de habanero. After the first margarita, they took off the jacket. And I said, "Oh, it's a good start." Until the first taco, they took off the shoes. These handsome guys took off the shoes. And I'm the happiest person in the world, because this is the best compliment for my restaurant.
Because I believe that cooking is a way to show your love. That's why on my day off, I cook for my family and my friends. And the Mexicans, Latin Americans, the fact of eating is a social event. If you mix this social event with the love, it makes beautiful, nice feelings.
EOW: If someone comes here for lunch, what should they order?
AC: Everything. I want the people to order four or five dishes. Tacos, tostadas, pastel, sopa. I use classical and homemade flavors. This is an important point. We didn't design the restaurant for Mexicans.
EOW: You say that you didn't, but the flavors are not diluted.
AC: I designed it for Americans because we live in Houston. I designed it so they will know real Mexican flavors. When people think of Mexican food, they think Tex-Mex. They think nachos and fajitas. Here, we don't have nachos, enchiladas. Instead of chips, we have totopos. For Tex-Mex tacos, they put lettuce and tomatoes.
EOW: So in your taco, you have what?
AC: It depends, what is a taco? The taco is the fact of taking a tortilla and put something in the middle. Most Mexicans eat soft corn tortilla, not flour. If you go at night, you have taquerias everywhere. And the real taco is just the thing; we put some onions and cilantro and the sauce. That's how I designed this place, so they know about Mexican food. These six and seven years of my life, I work with Mexican food. I come to show how we eat the food in Mexico, not to educate the people.
Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Chavez's dishes.
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