Square 1682 is set to open in the Hotel Palomar next Wednesday October 14 with chef Guillermo Tellez in the driver’s seat. Locally, Tellez had a brief tenure as the Starr Restaurant Organization’s director of menu development, plus a stint as executive chef of Striped Bass, but for 17 years, he worked for esteemed chef-restaurateur Charlie Trotter, in every position from grill cook to sous chef. We sat down with Tellez recently to discuss his plans for Square 1682 and he told us why every aspiring chef should work at IHOP, how he pushes his employees and why, in the end, the service may be more important than the food.
You started out at IHOP and ended up at Charlie Trotter’s. What did you learn at IHOP that you’ve taken with you through your career?
At IHOP, I learned about priorities because it’s a fast-paced environment so you need to really stay on top of your game. When you’re turning 800 people in two and a half, three hours, you really have to be on top of things.
Is IHOP a job you’d recommend for any aspiring chefs starting out?
I do recommend it. They need to be in a fast-paced environment, so they learn how to get speed and how to do things very precisely. You don’t learn a lot about food, but you learn a lot. You have to gain a foundation, you have to have something that gives you strength on the line. Many things can happen when you’re fresh out of school and you go into an environment that is very demanding. That can easily shatter your confidence if you’re not able to keep up with it.
How did you start working for Charlie Trotter?
It’s a long story. I met Charlie Trotter’s family before I met Charlie Trotter - Charlie was traveling throughout the world when I was cooking - I met them through my ex-wife. My ex-wife’s mom and Charlie’s mom were very good friends - they were neighbors. I was going to school at that time and his mom and dad always asked me to go see Charlie because he was opening a restaurant. I went to knock on the door and told Charlie I wanted to get a job there and he was like, “you need to come over and spend a day, to see if you really like this.” So I went over there and spent a day and the next day he was like, “what do you think?” and I said “I like it, I want to be a part of this.” So when I started I told him, “I’m going to work here two years and move on” and he said “no problem.” I started as a grill cook and I worked eventually in all the stations and became his assistant sous chef and after that I moved on to become a sous chef and eventually I was his chef de cuisine. I was there for 17 years.
That’s a long time! It’s very rare in the restaurant industry.
It is! But Charlie has provided me with an environment where it was never a dull moment, it was never boring, there was always something new, different things to do. There was travel and developing new menus and new projects.
Is that something you do for the people who work for you?
I do, I do. Charlie pushed me to the limit and I push those guys to the limit. I believe that as a human being we always reach a point where we’re comfortable and you’re so comfortable that you really don’t want to continue pushing yourself to the next level. And Charlie never let me get comfortable and I learned a lot and that’s what I want people to do - keep improving on themselves. The way I look at it, if I don’t push myself, no one’s going to push me. I need to have someone to really push me and I want to be the one pushing my guys to really move ahead. That’s when you lose, when you get too comfortable.
The food at Square 1682 is described as “new American menu with world flavors.” Is there one particular country that has the strongest influence in your food?
No. Again it goes with limiting yourself. It’s very easy to go into Italian cuisine or Mexican cuisine, but you limit yourself. There’s so much to learn. My cuisine is New American, it’s based on the traditional French discipline and cooking methods. New American cuisine] is basically, your own cuisine - you make it what it is. By that I mean taking a chile from Mexico or a curry spice from India and incorporating it into a dish. It has to be in a small portion - we don’t want to make a traditional Indian cuisine, we just want to make sure it has the essence.
The hotel is working the green, sustainable angle. How is that turning up in the food?
We’re working very closely with several local farmers - fresh eggs from Lancaster County, fresh milks and cheeses from another farm in Pennsylvania. Free-range animals. I am trying to really work with local purveyors. Most of the stuff - we can’t really call it organic because they are not certified - and it’s not like they’re not following those guidelines, it’s just financially, they don’t have the means of the money to pay for the certificate. But they grow well beyond organic, they way they treat everything. They respect what they do. In the wintertime it’s going to be a little bit tough, but when we can, we will.
Is anyone growing anything special for you?
In Ohio, I work with a farm called the Chef’s Garden. They have microgreens, interesting breeds of vegetables. The flavors are unbelievable. They do carmellini beans - they cross green beans and another type of bean and when you look at it, it’s a green bean, but it’s tiny. Purple snowpeas, they are so beautiful. They do different varieties of carrots - purple carrots, golden carrots, white carrots. The have something called ice spinach - it’s spinach that they plant and then they let it freeze. Then they let it thaw out again - it dies and regenerates again and it’s not bitter at all. It’s like eating an iceberg lettuce. I believe in the purity of flavors. If you have a beautiful carrot that is nice and sweet and grown the right way, why would you want to add some strong spice and mask the flavor?
Charlie Trotter’s restaurants are really well known for their service. In fact, there’s a whole book about service there. What’s your take on service?
Service is, to me, probably the most important thing, and then the food. I’ll tell you why I believe in service. In all my travels, I’ve been in restaurants where the food is incredible, but the service has been like, you know, kind of weird. It doesn’t matter if the food is great, the whole experience is kind of ruined by the service. On the other side, I can have food that is okay, but the service in unbelievable, then you really tend to forget about the flaws in the food because you had great service.
That’s really interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a chef say that before.
You know why? If you really think about it, as a chef, as a restaurateur, you have to be able to see the big picture. Sometimes we give too much power to young chefs that don’t have experience and that sometimes leads to a big ego. And the big ego gets in the way because they don’t see the big picture. It’s all about ‘me, me and my cuisine.’ Really it’s something that we have to teach people, that it’s not about ourselves. It’s about the team it’s about the whole program. If you want to have a successful place, all of the ingredients have to be in line. I can’t do this alone and they can’t do it alone either. It’s all about working as a team together and making a great experience.
You also worked for Starr? Anything you learned from working there?
I was director of menu development and executive chef of Striped Bass. It was a great job. I don’t really like to talk about other places… it was a job. I’ll tell you when it becomes a job. When you don’t have the support, that’s when it becomes a job. To me it’s always been about integrity - it doesn’t matter whether you’re at an IHOP or at Charlie Trotter’s place or the French Laundry. It was a good experience, but I always say, the day this business becomes a job, I have to change careers.