The first time you meet Mexican chef and Latin American TV personality Aquiles Chavez of the new restaurant La Fisheria, you immediately get a sense of his larger-than-life personality. He's gregarious, funny, confident, outgoing and wholly unself-conscious. But most importantly, he grew up in the kitchen and loves being there.
Last week, Chavez sat down for a candid chat about everything from his mustache to his training to what made him decide to leave his beloved homeland to start fresh in Houston.
EOW: Aquiles Chavez. Tell me about yourself.
AC: Okay. I was born in Mexico City 35 years ago, born in February 1977.
EOW: You want to reveal how old you are?
AC: [Jokingly] All the time I say I'm a 20-year-old kid in a body of a fat guy with a mustache.
EOW: [Laughs.] You're not fat! The mustache is a large part of your identity. Why the mustache?
AC: I started in the kitchen in a hotel. When you work in the kitchen in a hotel, you have no hair on your head or your body, not on your face, nothing. So when I opened up my own restaurant, I decided to make my real look. You know, because when you're in a hotel, you're like a robot, you don't have soul, nothing. Even you don't have a person. So in this moment, I decided to create my own look, to be again myself. Why the mustache? Because you see in the old movies, you see the guys with hat and the mustache, so much personality. That's the reason for the mustache.
EOW: So, you are kind of a star in Latin America, yes? Tell me about that. People here don't know you.
AC: I started in the kitchen when I was 16. The kitchen is all that I have, all that I do. Of course, when you start to make your own career, you think it's nice to be part of show. But one day, a channel called Utilisima called me and said they saw me in some magazines. Why the magazines? Before I opened my first restaurant, Lo, which in my language means "kid, or boy," like a rascal, I went to school in France, ADF by Alain Ducasse. They taught me all classical French, traditional techniques.
EOW: How long were you there?
AC: Three months. So when I came back from Alain Ducasse, I started to make French cuisine, but in Mexico it was very difficult to try to find the ingredients, and to try to find the people who would buy this food, because it was so expensive. So in this moment I changed French products for Mexican products.
EOW: French cuisine with Mexican products?
EOW: So give me an example of something you changed.
AC: So to make my pâté, I used turkey liver. But when I started to get more and more into local products, I started to know more about local recipes and local techniques. In this moment, I changed my point of view about the cuisine, and I decided not to continue with French cuisine. I started to learn about the Mexican cuisine. This was eight years ago.
EOW: Wait, so go back. Before Lo and Alain Ducasse, where were you?
AC: I was at the Hyatt in Villermosa. I was the Chef de Cuisine for Fine Dining.
EOW: So you were in charge of fine dining. I was a little confused because you said you decided to learn Mexican, but you're Mexican!
AC: You know why? When you go to the culinary arts school in this moment -- in the '90s -- they don't teach Mexican cuisine, they teach French and European cuisine. All the chefs in my university were from Switzerland, and when we asked, "Hey, chef, do you want to teach us Mexican cuisine?" they said no, you learn that on your own, in your house, not in the school. That's the way it was at that time. But now, Mexico's completely different. Right now, the culinary arts schools in Mexico are focused on Mexican cuisine because they know it's the future. But 20 or 30 years ago, if you wanted to be a chef, there were only two possibilities. If you were rich, your family could send you to France to learn at the Cordon Bleu. If you didn't have money, you start as a dishwasher.
Check back with us tomorrow as Chavez tells us more about the journey that brought him to Houston and about the cuisine you can expect to find at La Fisheria.