Mexican Cuisine Reimagined through the Lens of a Filipino New Englander

Olé owner Erwin Ramos talks Diana Kennedy, his Filipino upbringing, and putting his own spin on Mexican food.

Published Apr. 11, 2017.

A version of this interview originally appeared on on April 16th, 2015.


When Erwin Ramos moved to the United States from the Philippines in 1979, he never imagined he’d become the owner and creative force behind a group of Mexican restaurants. In fact, he never imagined he’d have anything to do with Mexican food at all. Fast forward 35 years, however, and Ramos’s Olé is a mainstay on the Boston-area Mexican food circuit. A Mexican-food neophyte upon his arrival in the US, Ramos is an old pro these days, and even now takes a yearly pilgrimage to Mexico with pal Rick Bayless.

I caught up with Ramos to talk about his success as a restaurateur, his culinary background, and his love of Mexican cuisine.

What’s your culinary background?

My mother is a restaurateur, and my father is a farmer. Everything that grew around me, that’s what we were using. Then when I moved to the US, everything was standardized. And now, suddenly, five or ten years ago, it’s the other way around again. So this is easy for me.

How did you come to cooking Mexican food?

It was sort of a fluke. I was trained on Mediterranean and New England food. But here in Boston, I was living alone, and I have some Mexican friends, and that’s how it came to be. I had this apartment, and I had a folding table, and every weekend, every holiday, you name it—none of us had any family here, and I was the cook. I was cooking everything—Italian, French, whatever, and then one day a friend said, “Erwin, why don’t you cook Mexican?” And said, “I don’t know anything about Mexican.” Then I called my mom and I said, “Can you send me the recipe for mole?” And that’s when I started doing it, and I fell in love, I truly fell in love.


Do you have any specific chefs who’ve influenced your cooking?

I started reading Diana Kennedy’s book, and that was one of my first introductions to Mexican cooking. That’s where my basis of doing things comes from. Another reason I started doing it is because my mother told me, “When you cook Mexican, it’s in the eye of the beholder.” And you have to improvise Mexican food in New England—you cannot be authentic. We call it museum food, where you bring the ingredients, you bring the water, you bring the people, you bring the air from Mexico—and it’s just impossible to do that.


How have you worked around those obstacles?

When I started cooking Mexican food I combined it with New England fare—of course you create your own thing. And that’s how I formed my own identity during those early years of cooking Mexican cuisine. That’s how I thought, it was my interpretation. Then suddenly I went to Mexico and, to my surprise, [the food] wasn’t like the Mexican cooking that I was doing. So I altered it, and I think that was a big mistake.

Why do you think it was a mistake?

I had chefs telling me I should be cooking more traditional Mexican food. Then I went to Baja, and that’s where I saw that they put ginger, soy sauce, lemon grass, everything in their food. And then they’re telling me, “You know what Erwin, you should do modern Mexican.” And I was like, “I was telling you that 20 years ago!” So now I’m backpedalling, putting the menu back together again. This is who I am now.

When I started cooking Mexican food I combined it with New England fare—of course you create your own thing. And that’s how I formed my own identity during those early years of cooking Mexican cuisine.

How have you managed to sustain your success at Olé?

I have customers here who’ve been with me for ten, twelve years, and eating the same dish the whole time. And you can never get them to change. In New England, we like our meat and potatoes and lobster and shrimp. But from my end, I’m pretty creative, and it’s like that famous band who had so many hits, and then they create something new but still at every concert people are like, “We want the old stuff.” But hey, that’s our bread and butter. Like our enchiladas. People are like, “Don’t touch it, I’m going to kill you if you touch it.”

Do you feel that your outsider perspective has been beneficial?

I know a lot about the Mexican cuisine, but I come from Asia so I see it differently. I’m outside the glass, looking in—I’m not Mexican. And if you asked me if I could cook Filipino, I don’t know, it might be hard. Maybe a few dishes? I know more about Mexican cuisine. This is our cuisine, this is the cuisine of the Americas.

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