I’ve always loved food. I grew up in Mexico, where the food literally explodes with flavor. For reasons I never understood, my parents insisted on eating American food. My mother had trained the servants to make a few things like fried chicken, pork chops and meatloaf, which rotated predictably throughout the week. They did a good job of it, imitating the American family style flawlessly. But nothing on our table came close to the riot of exciting food they made for themselves. Every chance I got, I used to sneak into the kitchen, sit with the maids and the gardener, and scarf down some mole, chiles rellenos, chilaquiles, or whatever they were having.
I learned from them how to heat a tortilla on an open flame, flipping it bare-handed as it acquired a slight charring. That was my beginning as a cook.
I had no idea then that I would have a career in cooking. I’ve always seen myself primarily as an artist–someone who loves beauty, craves it, and is driven to create beautiful things. Food was indeed a passion for me, but only one of many.
At first, I thought I was going to be a photographer. My father had a darkroom and taught me all the tricks. When I was 15, I took a train to Oaxaca and spent a week taking pictures of everything in sight. How my mother let that happen is still a mystery. I assembled a series of prints showing the past and present cultures of Oaxaca that was exhibited in Austin, Texas.
Although photography remains an interest to this day, I had to keep my horizons open. I next began experimenting with metal sculpture, printmaking and mixed media montage. My work was shown at Galería Misrachi and Galería La Bola in Mexico City (sold, too, I might add). A few years later I sold a piece to the owner of Galería Vandrés in Madrid.
At 18, I left home and spent two years living in Switzerland (my parents thought I was in college). I traveled throughout Europe and Morocco, where each town seemed to have its own unique cuisine. As entranced as I was by the rich culture in “the old country”–the widely diverse art, literature, music, architecture–what captured me most was the way these people really celebrated food. It became obvious to me that great culture is inseparable from great food.
Eventually, I moved to the United States and worked at various jobs around the country before settling on a career as a private chef. I never imagined that this would happen. As one French chef quipped, “You don’t choose this profession; it chooses you.”
I worked in a couple of restaurants, once as head pastry chef at a billionaire’s country club, but it didn’t agree with me. As a private chef, I not only got to make different food every day and use expensive ingredients, I got to observe human nature at the pinnacle of wealth and power–up close–and feed its underbelly. I think of it as a dual education. During my 25 years serving the rich and famous (including a president and a prime minister), I learned a lot about what we hunger for, and what satisfies.
When you get right down to it, we’re all basically the same and we all really want the same things: to feel good, to be complete. The hunger for food is only one facet of our need, but it’s a powerful one. To fulfill that need in a way that surprises the imagination, thrills the senses, entertains the intellect and, yes, even nourishes the heart, is not a bad way to make a living.