From Mexico With Love...
Mexique Crosses Cultures
by Amelia Levin portrait and plated food • photos courtesy of Mexique
Stop into Mexique on any given night and you’ll likely find Chef Carlos Gaytan, longish dark brown hair combed back, whites on, checking plates and calmly talking to his chefs at the back of the restaurant kitchen pass, occasionally peering toward the front door to see who’s coming in.
More folks might recognize Gaytan, 45, these days after his run on TV as a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef” three years ago. But truth is, Gaytan has been at the forefront of Chicago’s fine-dining scene for more than a decade now.
A little soft-spoken but always with his charming, bright-eyed smile on display, Gaytan has been quietly refining his finedining Mexican-French cuisine (“Mexique” is French for “Mexican”) for years, even as Rick Bayless continued to earn fame for his refined Mexican dishes at Topolobampo.
Michelin recognized this in 2013, giving Gaytan’s Mexique one star (the first Latin American chef to earn one), turning many heads across the city, the nation and even the world. Now, travelers from all over the country and even as far as Australia, Germany and China come to Mexique when visiting Chicago for a taste of his modern and seasonal Mexican-French cuisine.
Mexique stays standing as one of the last finer-dining institutions, with its white tablecloths, optional tasting menus and hands-on service, even as more casual and hip-friendly, louder and boisterous restaurants seem to be taking over the city. When the restaurant first opened on Chicago Avenue in 2008, West Town still wasn’t a neighborhood you might just casually walk on over to and through. Now, it’s a bustling urban mecca for many restaurants, and it’s safe to say Mexique was a pioneer on that front.
On the menu, “every dish has a story,” says Gaytan. Many of those stories originate from his childhood, growing up in the small town of Taxco just outside Acapulco in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. There, he grew up eating fresh seafood whenever his family—which struggled financially—could afford it. His father would take him hunting for deer and quail, to the riverbeds for fresh oysters and to the fields whenever they craved fresh watermelon and other produce. Meanwhile, his mother would oversee her taqueria, nourishing both family and the townspeople regularly with her famous, multi-ingredient mole sauce made with all the TLC one might expect.
At Mexique, Gaytan has worked hard to recreate his mother’s mole, fire-roasting all the peppers until blackened and adding spices, Mexican bitter chocolate and even plantain, coconut and peaches for some sweetness to the complex mix, which simmers for four to six hours until thickened and rich in flavor. He serves the mole with a leaner pork belly that’s been braised for eight hours so it takes on more of the consistency of rich short ribs, he says. It’s true, I can attest, and the perfectly seared scallops served alongside in a play on surf and turf round out the dish with velvety squash.
Gaytan’s chipotle-tamarind glazed duck also pays homage to his hometown. “In the town where I come from we have tamarind trees everywhere,” he says. “When someone passes away we say this person went to take care of the tamarind trees because there are always so many in the local cemetery. When I grew up we also ate a lot of tamarind candy. So this dish reminds me of those trees and eating that candy when I was a kid.”
The tostada appetizer also reminds Gaytan of his childhood, when he would travel to a nearby town just to eat a similar dish with pork feet and pickled jalapeños piled on homemade tortillas with chile powder. At Mexique, he’s added pickled mustard seeds and local greens to bring in his own element.
A regular at the twice-weekly Green City Market, Gaytan shops for seasonal produce from nearby farms for his dishes that combine this nostalgia with both Mexican and French cooking techniques.
He’s a regular fan of spicy and bright radishes, perky microgreens and their fresh and crisp older siblings, always reaching for heirloom tomatoes and strawberries in the summer and hearty squash in the fall. For his famous rainbow trout, he makes a salsa with locally grown red peppers that have been roasted and puréed with chile de arbol and almonds for a stuffing and then roasts the fish wrapped in corn husk over open flames to add some smokiness.
Inspired by Home and Faith
Though he grew up cooking food his entire life in Mexico, by the time he arrived in the U.S in 1991 he didn’t have any professional experience. So he started out washing dishes in a hotel kitchen, helping out in the back of the house at different restaurants and reading as many books and magazines on fine-dining cuisine as he could. Selft-aught Gaytan went on to study under some esteemed chefs. Jeff Miller, the executive chef at the Sheraton Chicago Northbrook plucked Gaytan from the dishwashing station to cook. Once Miller noticed a natural talent in this eager young man, he served as a key mentor in his cooking career.
Gaytan would go on to cook at the Union League Club of Chicago for eight years, later serving as chef de cuisine under the renowned French Chef Dominique Tougne at Bistro Margot in 2004 for three years. So it made sense when he combined his Mexican background with classical French training to open Mexique in May 2008. He poured his life savings into the project, during an especially tumultuous time in the economy and for restaurants in particular. Within three months of opening it began showing up on “Best of” and “Top New” restaurant lists in the city.
It wasn’t all roses. After the initial new restaurant media attention wore off, Gaytan burned through loans and credit cards to keep afloat. He even got some help from friends at his church, which he would attend regularly. And he prayed—a lot. Even to this day, he nicknames his restaurant Los Casa de Dios (House of God) in honor of the few miracles he feels he’s had, allowing him to keep going.
“I’m really grateful to God,” Gaytan says. During an extended financial low point, he seriously considered closing his doors. But the following week he received the call that he was earning that highly coveted Michelin star. “It was a huge accomplishment for me and everyone at the restaurant.” Suddenly, the quiet, often forgotten-about Mexique was launched into the spotlight in the same category as fine-dining institutions Blackbird and Tru.
Gaytan remains thankful for media shining light on his restaurant, helping to bring people in beyond just good word of mouth. He has since secured top listings on TripAdvisor and other high-traffic travel and food sites after years of great reviews. “We’re very grateful for that as it has really helped us stay in business,” Gaytan says.
Good reviews don’t come in a vacuum, however. They must be earned. Even today, as competition remains fierce, Gaytan continues to offer up delicious, beautifully plated food in his efforts to “take Mexican cuisine to the next level,” as he puts it.
Appearing on “Top Chef” Season 11, which premiered in October 2013 and filmed in New Orleans, also helped Gaytan earn that national media attention he really needed at the time. Gaytan placed fourth out of a competitive lineup of 17 chefs on the show and was portrayed in a positive light—something not all contestants can say.
“Business-wise it was great to be on ‘Top Chef’ and be recognized by everyone,” he says. “We have a lot of people come from other states and countries like Mexico and South Africa and even the Middle East that know me because of watching that season.” Personally, the experience was challenging, Gaytan admits, and not just because of the grueling hours with little sleep and new challenges daily. “It was really hard because they take everything away from you for two months—you can’t connect with anyone, not even your family or your business.”
Fortunately, Gaytan says he has been blessed with a loyal, hardworking staff who held down the fort when he was gone and continue to do so.
“It’s a challenge to have a fine-dining restaurant nowadays and sometimes I want to change what I am doing but it’s also something I really enjoy,” he says. “When you’re running a fine-dining restaurant, you have to make sure you execute everything perfectly. You have to make the food as amazing as you can to keep people coming back, so we try to stay in shape and do a great job every single day.”
He keeps busy outside the restaurant by coaching his son’s soccer team and keeping in touch regularly with his daughter, who’s studying at Indiana University to be a pediatrician. He’s been married for 20 years to his wife, Iliamar, an architect of Puerto Rican descent who designed Mexique.
At the restaurant, he also gives back to his second “family,” continuing to coach young, up-and-coming chefs from here and also Mexico who want to learn the art of fine-dining Mexican and French cuisine.
“It’s a great experience to see so many young chefs want to learn from you and open their own restaurants,” Gaytan says. It’s the next generation, but Gaytan’s not passing the torch anytime soon.
Spoiler alert: Gaytan says he is investigating the possibility of opening a second, more casual outlet in Chicago or Mexico City.
1529 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago
Amelia Levin is a certified chef, writer and recipe consultant who loves to hit the road in search of good food.
Return to the Roots
A Special Homecoming
At press time, Gaytan was about to embark on a trip back to his hometown for the first time in more than 30 years since he left for the U.S. He plans to cook a special dinner for the town and other invited guests, a truly special homecoming. For years, he says, the crime there had been so bad that he was often forced to meet up with his family in Mexico City.
Upon his return, Gaytan plans to pay homage to his roots and his mother, who first taught him how to cook and instilled the importance of family meals. “I’ll probably serve a ceviche because we have a lot of seafood in that area, and maybe a squid ink tamal,” he says. “And I’ll make the peach and honey dessert from our menu here.” He’s referring to the artfully plated dish of tender-roasted summer peaches from Michigan with homemade, tangy, queso fresco cheese ice cream, local honey and little puff pastries, almost like a deconstructed shortcake.