A Chef’s Journey: From El Salvador To Philadelphia With Jorge Chicas of Red Owl Tavern

How comfortable did you become with Lebanese cooking?
Again, it’s a lot different. When I started, I was very hesitant about it. Reading through it, I’m like, I don’t know how difficult this is gonna be. But once I got there and saw the process and how everything was done….to me, it was all about freshness. Healthy food. I think that Mediterranean food has a lot of very healthy components. I enjoy it very much. That is one of my favorite cuisines.

Big difference between finding a few Lebanese products at a specialty grocer in the states and living it and eating it everyday.
Yeah. I was there for two months but it was a very unique experience.

Total immersion.
Yeah. Then you come back. Start creating the menu. Putting together the recipes. Reading books. Trying to duplicate the flavors. Obviously, you’re never going to get the flavors that we had over there. The product is different.

How much of it is, I have this solid foundation and my intuition, and you just go with it?

I think that you never feel—at least for my part—I never felt 100%. I managed to create the dishes. I gave them to the owner to taste. He loved them. He thought they were a good interpretation and as good as it was going to be. With that being said, after I opened the restaurant, I really got in tune with trying to find distributors who would carry authentic Lebanese [ingredients]—like the Za’atar. I wanted to make sure it was authentic. I didn’t want the Za’atar that you can get anywhere, like at the super market. It’s different. Same thing with the tahini. The olive oil.

Fresher spices.
Exactly. That to me, gave the traditional flavors. I at least tried to—as much as I could—incorporate the traditional flavors in the dishes and it made it different. I left the company after 9/11. They let me go. I was in the process of training to be a corporate chef with them and they started cutting people here and there. I was one of the ones that needed to go. At that point, I had already started a personal company. I was thinking about doing a distribution company, importing some products (Queso Petacones, Salvadoran beans, horchata) from El Salvador that I sold to Latin American grocery stores in the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. areas. So I spent about a year and half doing that. That’s when I got tapped by Jose Andres in D.C. He wanted me to open up Zaytinya for him. I was really hesitant going back to the restaurant business, especially after feeling that you had put eleven years into a company and all of a sudden something happens you’re out of a job. To me it was, if I’m going to do this I’d rather work hard and build my own company and work in my own business rather than go and spend time with somebody else that can give you the boot anytime, pretty much. But at the end of the day he convinced me and I missed working in restaurants so I went back and opened Zaytinya [in 2002] with him. That was a completely different experience. Working with Jose was fine-tuning your palate, fine-tuning your skills. Really understanding what really good food is.

Was that Spanish food?
No, Zaytinya is a Greek/Turkish/Lebanese restaurant. Mediterranean. I was there for about four years as the executive chef. Then I was the GM and chef for an additional two years.

What did you do after that?
After that, I went to the home office, working with chef Jose. We opened Oyamel [in 2004], the Mexican restaurant. With him, it was the same process. We went to Mexico: Mexico City, Oaxaca, Vera Cruz. His thing was just go have lunch. Order everything from the menu. Just taste. Take pictures of everything we liked. Take notes. Go to another place. Go to two, three restaurants during lunch. Then go to two, three restaurants during dinner and do the same thing. That’s what we did the entire time we were in Mexico.

How much experience did you have with Mexican cuisine at that point?
None. But that was his way of developing your palate for the cuisine. Really understanding the flavors and the ingredients. Going to the super markets, the mercados and tasting the moles, the different flavors. It’s just incredible.
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