It’s tough to replace someone who was on Top Chef and was the face of his restaurant, as Chuy Valencia was for Chilam Balam. It’s even tougher, we imagine, when you’re so obviously a non-Mexican running a Mexican restaurant, as Natalie Oswald is. With her red hair and spunky, can-do demeanor, she reminds you of the heroine in a Disney live-action film from the 70s. But she was converted to real Mexican food by an internship at another midwestern convert’s restaurant, Frontera Grill, where she met Valencia. And she worked alongside him from the restaurant’s opening in 2009 until he left earlier this spring, first as a pastry chef, then on all facets of the menu. We spoke with her about how a girl from Toledo grows up to be running a serious, authentic Mexican restaurant in Chicago.
How long had you been at Chilam Balam before you took over?
I’ve been here since the restaurant opened. I started out just part time, helping out doing pastries. Then I was asked to come on full time. Then when Chuy expressed that he wanted to leave, I took over for him.
Had you cooked savory before?
Oh yeah, I went to culinary school, I went to the CIA for savory. I grew up decorating cakes with my grandma in Ohio, and in some local bakeries there. But when the economy started to get really bad I thought, well, everyone always has to eat, but they don’t always have to eat dessert. And if the only thing I know how to make is dessert… so I really thought it was important to know how to cook as well.
So I go to the CIA in New York, and I’m like, great, I finally know how to cook. And I start looking for a job and I apply to all these restaurants and everything, and the only place that calls me back is a bakery, to decorate cakes. I’m like, all right, fine, I guess I’ll do it. It’s destiny.
So I move to Chicago— backing up, while I was still in school I did my internship at Frontera Grill with Rick Bayless and everyone there, that’s where I met Chuy, we became friends. So when I was out of school I moved to Chicago and I got a job at what was Otom Restaurant in the West Loop. I started there on the garde-manger station, and three days after I started there the pastry chef quit. And I was the ooooonly one who knew how to make pastries.
And a little while later Chuy said he was going to open his restaurant, and he asked me to help out with the pastries. And I said, I love to do pastries but I don’t only have to do pastries, I can do it all.
Have you changed the menu since you took over?
Oh absolutely! Just the same as before, every month. We change the menu every month to keep up with the raw style of the restaurant.
Do you change on a theme?
No, it’s just whatever I think about, I think about it all month long, I’m not the kind of person that can sit down and do it all at once, so I’ve already thought of some things for next month, and a few things for September. I like to kind of like to get everyone in the kitchen involved, so they feel a part of it, I’m not the only one who thought up all this stuff. That would be incredibly selfish of me. I try to incorporate everybody’s ideas and thoughts, and things that they look forward to seeing at the markets and eating, based on seasonality in Mexico and their holidays and so on.
Is there any particular regionality to it?
No, it’s all over, and because the menu changes so much it doesn’t even have to be strictly Mexican, as long as it has some kind of Mexican influence.
What’s something you’ve changed since taking over? What’s on the menu that you’d say is your personality?
I think it’s all my personality, or just things I’ve learned from along the way. I guess I just try not to repeat things that have been done before.
Is there anything you look at and could say, that’s me, not Chuy?
Well, I think so. I mean, I had a lot of influence on the menu before. But definitely the desserts. Chuy never really was that involved with them, he left that to me. All the desserts are reflections of myself. I have the three that never change, and then monthly one changes. I like to incorporate fruit because there isn’t a lot of fruit on the menu.
Had you made much Mexican food before going to Frontera?
Uh, no… (laughs)
Tacos out of the spice packet?
Yeah, well, it’s funny you ask that because I thought I knew Mexican food before I went to Frontera. And you know, in Ohio we don’t have hardly any local restaurants. It’s getting better, there’s farmer’s markets now, but not when I was living there. So I thought I knew Mexican food, I thought I liked to go out to eat it, but I didn’t know. It was even funny, when I moved to Chicago, someone asked me, oh, can you go to the store and get some tortillas? And I was like, they don’t have corn tortillas at the grocery store. What are you talking about? They had to take me to the store and actually show me that they had corn tortillas. In Ohio, they only had flour tortillas in the grocery store. No way you could ever get a corn tortilla.
That’s some of my first memories of thinking I knew what I was talking about. Looking back I laugh at myself.