Ruben Beltran was born and raised in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. He lived in Mexico until he was fifteen, when he moved to Chicago and started washing dishes for Chef Rick Bayless. Like many others, this experience at the School of Rick, one of Chicago's and the world's finest Mexican chefs, gave Beltran the push he needed to strike out on his own and head up his own kitchens. After working at Maya del Sol for some years, he left for a while. Now he's back and we had some questions for him.
Chef Beltran, what was it like working for Rick Bayless?
Working with Rick was like going to college. He showed us how to work, showed us how to create a dish. Once per week every sous chef needed to produce a dish and present it to Rick. He would give us feedback, tweak it, and if it was good enough, we would feature that dish on the menu. That's something I've always appreciated, and I push my chef de cuisine, line cooks, and pastry department to create new things in the kitchen every week.
When you were growing up, what kind of dishes did your mother or grandmothers prepare…and did those dishes influence anything that is (or will be) on the menu at Maya del Sol?
There were many dishes that my grandmother used to prepare that influenced my career as a chef. We're featuring enchiladas con mole with a recipe that my grandmother used to make when I was growing up. She would grind all of the chiles with a stone called salsa en metate.
My mom used to make a beef barbacoa that I've tweaked a little bit and we're doing with the short ribs on the menu now. You start by searing the ribs on the plancha and then braising the beef in guajillo
and stock. Everything is wrapped in banana leaves and avocado leaves and cooked for about four hours
What changes in Mexican cuisine in Chicago have you seen in the past 20 years or so?
Wow, there have been a lot… Fifteen years ago you couldn't get the kind of ingredients we can today. The vegetables, fruit, the chiles… It used to be really hard to find the kind of stuff we used back home.
Where do you shop for Mexican ingredients?
Right now there's a store called Pete's Market. They have a lot of Mexican ingredients. You can get anything you need there. [Note: Oak Park will, someday, have their own Pete's, which is good news for Chef Beltran and probably for many of us who like to cook Mexican food at home]
What ingredients are most difficult to find in Chicago?
I have a really tough time finding good quality South American produce. Some of the ajis are hard to find—aji Amarillo, aji panca, you know, it's difficult to get these chilies fresh.
We're sure you're proud of all the dishes on the new Maya del Sol menu, but are there any that give you a special sense of accomplishment?
A couple of my favorites: the duck is really good. I like the flavors of the sauce, the sweetness of the tamarind reminds me of when I was a little kid and used to eat those little tamarind candies. With the gaminess of the duck breast, it's a really great plate.
I also really like the scallops. The sauce is an arbol-peanut sauce that has a little bit of a kick to it. We also do a chipotle glaze for the scallops, and the flavors really come together.
Answer Book 2018
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