Behind Souk’s Middle Eastern menu is Mexican-born head chef Rogelio Almanza, who has recently settled in Melbourne after living and working in Mexico and Japan for the last ten years. Almanza is trained in many cuisines including Japanese, Italian and French. But training aside, Rogelio has the love. And that makes all the difference.
How long have you been a chef?
I started working in big professional kitchens ten years ago, but before that I worked in small restaurants and studied to be a chef.
Yes. I started in Mexico City. Then I travelled to a different part of Mexico in Cabo San Lucas in Baja, California at the Hilton Los Cabos.
Is learning to cook in Mexico different to learning elsewhere?
In Mexico you learn more about the American style and of course you have to learn the Mexican style because the cuisine of Mexico is very hard to make. It’s a beautiful cuisine. In all the tourist parts of Mexico, there are mostly Americans and Canadians. In the Hilton you work with a lot of international chefs as well. You can work with Italian, French chefs. People come from many different countries to work there. That’s why it’s good to work in the big companies. You can learn from big chefs or you can travel with the company and learn about different parts of the world.
Did you always want to be a chef?
No. Not really. I started working in the kitchen because I needed to work to pay for my life. Most of the men in my family are pianists; professional concert pianists. Starting with my grandfather, all the men studied the piano. But that was not for me. I learned the piano for 12 years but it wasn’t for me. Then I started to look for a job and somebody gave me the opportunity to work in a kitchen. When I first started I didn’t think it was for me. It was too hard, the shifts were too long, but I continued and decided to study cooking. I finished gastronomy school and then I decided to move to a more tourist area for the pay. Mexico City is a busy city but they pay you less. So I thought it would be better to work by the beach or something, so I went to the Hilton.
You were saying before that there is a lot to learn about Mexican food and I have always been interested in Mexican food. It’s so popular here in Melbourne, but I know we really only know about Mexican street food, so tacos and tortillas. What are the complicated aspects of Mexican food?
Ouf. First, Mexico is a big country and all the cities have their own food. They use different flavours and different chillis. There are more than 75 chillis in Mexico. You have different combinations. It is one cuisine that I would like to learn more about in the future. I can cook Mexican food because I am Mexican but I am sure that I only know 50% of what there is to know about Mexican food. For example, to make a traditional mole you have to spend a day making it. If you want to make a barbacoa, a style of Mexican lamb, you have to wait a day and you have to cook in the ground. It’s a difficult cuisine because Mexican food isn’t about the recipe, it’s about the taste, the feeling, the people. In Mexico, it’s not important whether you are poor or rich, everyone eats the same. Everyone loves barbacoa, everyone loves tacos, everyone loves the food. I love Mexico and I love Mexican food but it’s very complicated to make it properly.
Are there two Mexican restaurants in the Worlds Top 50 restaurants?
I think 23rd and 26th positions. They have done very well. It’s really great for the name of Mexico.
I was reading an article about Mexico City and a chef who boasts his mole has been going for 200 days. How does that work?
The thing is the mole is a dry paste and it can last at least six months. If you put it in the fridge, it can last a year. All the ingredients are dried; a lot of chillis, nuts and chocolate. a mole’s life is a long one. Then you have to make a chicken stock and add the mole paste to that. It’s beautiful.
Reading about that mole really made me think about how little I know about Mexican food. So you were saying that that Mexican food is not about the recipe but about the flavour and feeling and being Mexican you understand that, how does that work now that you are cooking Middle Eastern food but you’re not Middle Eastern?
When I first got the job I thought it was going to be really hard. But I wanted to try. Before here, I worked in Japan for three years at the Conrad Tokyo, the same family as the Hilton. I worked with only Japanese. That was my first challenge because I didn’t speak Japanese and I didn’t know anything about Japanese culture. I started working with Jose Sanchez, a Mexican chef. He was the Executive chef for the Conrad and then he moved to New York, but anyway, I worked with these kinds of chefs; big names. You learn a lot about the food and the techniques and that was when my mind really started to open and I understood more about the food and not just the cooking. Cooking is fine but what about the taste and the combination of flavours. Every culture has a different palate; Japanese, Mexican, French, American. That was when I really learned a lot.
I came to Melbourne and I got this job and for a month I started learning about the Middle Eastern culture and food; all the chillis, the sauce base. It’s similar to Mexican food. It’s not very different. There are lots of spices, chillis; there are strong flavours and it’s very tasty. Cumin, oregano…we use them a lot in Mexico too. I went with my bosses to different places to try Middle Eastern food. It’s new for me, but at the same time, I can understand what’s in the dishes. Although in Mexico we use chickpeas in a different way. I started to learn a little bit then I started cooking it at home for my sous chef and for my wife and they’d say whether it was good or bad. There was lots of trying at home before I tried in the restaurant. Then when I presented some dishes to my bosses for the first time, they told me that the presentation was beautiful but the taste was different. Good, but not Middle Eastern. It’s hard when you have never done it before to know what will be right. Then I started improving the flavours. I worked over two months to create the dishes. I’d spend maybe two weeks on one dish. Now I like Middle Eastern food. But I’m a Mexican chef with the techniques I learned in Japan over three years, so it’s 92% Middle Eastern but with a splash of Mexican and a splash of the different techniques from Japan.
What I want to do at Souk with all my team is to put easy food into the next level. When I say easy, I mean, for example, there are lots of tacos around but when you taste a really good taco, you notice the difference. So here, we want a really sexy presentation so that people will ask what it is; it’s a tabouleh but the taste is better and it’s presented in a different way. We want to have fun with the food. I’m very excited about the restaurant, the cuisine and the team.
I hope you can understand my English. It’s not so good.
Your English is very good. I tried to learn Spanish off an app, but it didn’t go very well.
I think it’s hard to learn any language. Now I can speak Japanese but it was so hard in the beginning. English you can maybe listen to movies or songs, it’s more common and everyone knows how to say hello or how much is it in English but when I arrived in Japan, I couldn’t say anything.
That must be so hard in the kitchen.
When I first got to Japan I worked in a Mexican restaurant called La Gabriela and it was easy because it was Mexican food and there were some Spanish speakers. One day a customer came and left his business card and told me to call him and I went and did a trial and got the job. I thought it was going to be impossible because I couldn’t understand when the chefs told me they wanted a tomato or an onion or I had to cook a certain way, slowly or faster. I had nothing. I just had to learn by watching. But the culture in Japan is amazing and I learned a lot there. I love Japan. I love Australia, of course, but I also love Japan.
You’re having so many good experiences.
It’s such a good experience to work with people professionally who are so passionate. They are not just working to work, they love this kind of job. To be part of those kinds of teams, you have to have the love and you have to be professional. There is no one on the team who doesn’t know how to chop right or whatever. Everyone there knows how to work at that level of cuisine.
That comes through all my conversations with chefs, you have to love this job or it would just be too hard. I always think about – I read it English but it’s a Spanish book – Like Water for Chocolate…
Como agua para chocolate.
Yes! About the woman who cooks and all her emotion goes into the food and affects those who eat it and I think that happens.
This is the passion. I work 18 hours or 12 hours seven days a week and in the mornings I am so tired and think I need a rest but when I arrive in the restaurant and start working with everyone, I forget everything else. I only think about the customers and the meals and new dishes and I want to work really hard towards my goals for the future. And it’s fantastic. But for all those reasons there are people who think they want to become chefs but it’s too hard for them. It is really hard. It’s not television. It’s about passion. You might have to cut tomatoes for three hours and it’s boring but you have to. You have to follow the sequence. It’s fantastic. I love cooking. I love cooking for my family, for my customers.
If I see one person’s face looking unhappy, it is impossible for me to stay in the kitchen. I have to go to the table and ask what’s wrong and I want to give them a new dish. You go to a restaurant because you want to enjoy yourself. Maybe if you don’t like one dish you might get in your mind that you don’t like the restaurant or any of the food. But maybe if I say, forget that one, try something else and if you like it, next time, order that. But you need passion for that. Otherwise you will cook and not care. But that is not a good way to be.
I love cooking. I love my job.
13 Bligh Place, Melbourne