A version of this interview originally appeared on AmericasTestKitchenFeed.com on April 15th, 2015.
While the menu at East Somerville’s La Brasa isn’t rooted in Mexican cuisine, the chef that executes that menu, Daniel Bojorquez, certainly is. Raised in Hermosillo in the state of Sonora, Mexico, Bojorquez grew up eating, among other things, beef cooked over pits of hissing fire and hot coals. And though he’s been living in the United States for more than a dozen years now (he’s cooked at a number of restaurants in the Boston area, including Grafton Street and the late UpStairs at the Pudding), he holds tight to the foods and cooking methodologies of his Mexican upbringing.
I recently spoke with Bojorquez about growing up in Mexico, his training in traditional French cuisine, and working with L’Espalier’s Frank McClelland to conceptualize a new restaurant that has its influences rooted in the countries of many of the residents who live in the neighborhood. Here’s what he had to say.
How have your Mexican roots influenced the menu at La Brasa?
We don’t focus on Mexican cuisine, but one of the things that we’re known for is our carnitas tacos. That’s kind of our hamburger at La Brasa, something that’s very approachable for everybody. It’s very clean, well executed, fresh—pretty much everything you’re looking for in a taco.
Are your roots always at the forefront of your cooking?
I’m trying to really just cook what I know, the overall picture. It’s not necessarily just a focus on Mexican cuisine, even if I’m from Mexico. I mean, I’ve been cooking here in Boston for 14 years. I’ve worked with French food at L’Espalier. With me, with all of my friends, everyone’s cooking style is pretty broad—I like to keep my eyes open to new ways of cooking, but also obviously my heritage comes through in my cooking. Whatever I’m doing, it still seems somehow Mexican.
What do you mean?
Methodology, flavors, and the idea that things feel very relaxed even if it takes hard work to get there. The approach to cooking for me is about simplicity. Simple stuff that you’d eat at your house, and you try to make it right—try to have some fun and show some skill. For me it’s just comforting—if you’re hungry, you’ll come here and eat. That’s kind of my style—matter-of-fact when it comes to flavors. Good, tasty food.
Do you see the influence of Mexican food elsewhere?
It’s interesting—people are very focused on Mexican cooking, [especially the use of] open fire, right now. We’re just trying to make La Brasa feel very real to where we are—Somerville, Boston—and very real to who I am as a cook. I try to take all those things that I’ve learned along the way and embrace those things, and embrace the community here. That’s how the whole concept came about.
When did you move to the US?
I got to Boston in 2000—I was in my mid-twenties. I went to school in Puebla, Mexico, and was classically trained in French cuisine. My sister was in Boston at the time and she was like, “You should come to Boston to learn English.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” but in my head I knew I was going to come here to cook.
How would you describe what you’re doing at La Brasa?
Every time a new restaurant opens, someone is like, “Oh, what’s the concept?” That was the coolest part about partnering with Frank—he never questioned what I was going to do, he was just about support. Because even the people that do PR for us were like, “You need to have a concept—what are you selling?” And I’d be like, “Good food.” And people would ask if it was Mexican, and I’d be like, “Well . . .” So the explanation of what I’m doing is always a long explanation, and people are like, “Well, that’s confusing.” So I just say, “Come to the restaurant.”
To me, the food that we do is food we’d do at the farm, at a party with friends, comfort food. Have some beers, have some wine. I still like quality, but it doesn’t have to be this whole thing.
Were your parents good cooks? What did you grow up eating?
My mom, she’s a very good cook, but she didn’t cook much because she’s got a business in Mexico . . . She worked a lot, and the environment I grew up in was busy, busy, busy. Almost as stressful somehow as restaurants are. And I feel like that helped me a lot in what I do now . . . So the reason I started to cook is because my mother was always busy and I would go to buy food at something that in Mexico they call a fonda, which is not necessarily a restaurant—it’s compared to a diner here in the US. There was a stand with a lady cooking beans and rice and steak.
So I always had access to very good food, and I was always serious about it. I mean, I love food, and when I was a kid I’d be staring [at the ladies cooking] and be like, “I want to be a cook,” and all the ladies would make fun of me and be like, “Yeah, whatever Daniel.” So I kind of developed a lot of relationships with cooks in Mexico, and I would ask them to teach me. One of my mom’s friends owned a cake shop, so I would help her bake cakes. Somehow I was always surrounded with food and people who cook or have some sort of food business. And in Mexico it’s very common—people in Mexico like to eat. They like good food. You go to a party where I’m from and what’s typical is carne asada, so the whole grilling-and-fire thing is something that I grew up with . . . For me, food is very instinctual: I’m hungry, let’s throw something on the fire and eat it.
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