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

How long of a process was that?
For me, it was a month long process. He spent two months down there. We came back and started the development of the menus and putting them as close to the authentic flavors as possible.

Did it showcase different regions from Mexico?
The restaurant is still open. They have a lot of the Vera Cruz ceviche styles. A lot of the flavors from Mexico. Some dishes with mole. Authentic dishes from Oaxaca. I would say we grabbed a little bit from different parts of Mexico and incorporated all the authentic flavors.

How much similarity is there between Mexican and El Salvadoran food?
I was surprised actually because I think there are a lot of very similar flavors. A lot of ingredients are very similar. Mexico has evolved a lot more in cuisine than El Salvador has. I’ve always been fascinated with that and trying to elevate it a little bit more, my roots and the cuisine that we have in El Salvador.

What are some of the main differences that set the two cuisines apart?
Salvadoran food in the U.S., the more traditional thing or popular thing is the pupusas, which is basically the masa with the cheese stuffing. It’s a tortilla with stuffing in the middle. You cut it in half. You have everything coming out of the tortilla. The cheese. You also make the pork, the chicharrón. And you also do the bean with cheese. Those are the three traditional ones.

Not pig skins?
Chicharrón in El Salvador is pork or the pork belly that we just basically fry it until it’s nice and soft. That’s what we call chicharrón. In Mexico, it’s more of the skin, so it’s different.

That brings us up to 2005.
Then I spent a couple years with the home office doing openings. We opened Jaleo [2005] in Virginia. Then we helped out with some of the stuff at the Minibar and I was working on the SLS project. Jose got a partnership with SBE, Starwood.

What’s SLS?
SLS is a brand. It’s a hotel, basically. The first one was opened in Beverly Hills. I was basically representing Jose. He was in charge of all the food and beverage for the hotel. I was interviewing the chefs. Working with the research and develop teams on the dishes.

What kind of food?
It’s old innovative stuff. Spanish. The Bazaar is Spanish food. Modern and traditional. Tres was an American twist with a little bit of Spanish influence. Then we have Saam [at The Bazaar] which is basically modern Spanish. We used to do twenty courses. Very interesting.

Small bites?
Very fine dining. And then banquet and catering [services].
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