Travel the Routes of Mexico at Mexique With Chef Carlos Gaytan

Chef Carlos Gaytan at Mexique.
Chef Carlos Gaytan at Mexique. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

There’s something new on Carlos Gaytan’s chef coat: the logo of the Mexican Tourism agency. In a city of a zillion Mexican restaurants and at least a pretty good handful of upscale ones, this arm of the Mexican government has put their stamp on his arm and his restaurant Mexique to say, this is what we want to point you toward when you come to Chicago, this represents how Mexican food can also be fine cuisine. Mexique flies under the radar a bit on the local food scene, but we’ve always been impressed by how it combines the classical technique Gaytan picked up working everywhere but Mexican restaurants in Chicago with what are, to us, the real and often funky flavors of authentic Mexican food. The aspirational side of his story is surely part of what got him a gig this week as one of the Chefs of the Day at Taste of Chicago, and you’ll have more chances to get to know him under special circumstances when he launches a series of menus built on different classic Mexican ingredients, following routes that show how those ingredients are used in different food regions of Mexico. We spoke with Gaytan about all this new activity.

So you’ve got the Mexican government’s stamp of approval?

Mexican tourism, yeah. It’s been really great. It’s opened some doors for me, introduced me to some great chefs in Mexico. And we’re getting a lot of visitors from Mexico who have heard of us for the first time as a destination in Chicago.

And you were just the Chef du Jour at the Taste. How was that?

Oh man, I’m still so tired from that. I had to prep everything at Washburne [Culinary Institute] and I worked from 5:30 in the morning until 9 at night. But it’s a big platform so I hope I made some good impressions on people with my food, that’s all I can say.

Now, for a guy who has a Mexican restaurant… you’ve never actually worked in a Mexican restaurant, right?

My mother’s!

But not in Chicago.

Right. I worked in hotels, and I worked for the Union League Club, the best private club in town. And then I was at Bistro Margot for several years. But no, I never worked in a Mexican restaurant here.

But my mother has a restaurant in a little town near Acapulco, in Taxco. And from the time I was a kid, that’s just how it is, you’re helping and learning in the kitchen. My mother’s place, it’s not your typical family restaurant that makes the same things all the time. She’s very experimental, always trying new things. So I learned that growing up working with her, but in Chicago, I learned all the other things about cooking every kind of food.

So tell us about this “routes” thing you’re doing.

It’s a series of menus I’m going to do focusing on regional food in Mexico. The first one is The Routes of Moles. Moles are such an important part of Mexican cuisine and there’s a lot of difference regionally— one region, Oaxaca, has seven moles alone. And then there’s mole poblano from Puebla, and… I’m even going to do a mole dessert with a pumpkinseed mole.

The next one will be The Routes of Tequila. And through my Mexican tourism connection I managed to get Jose Cuervo to give us four tours which we’ll be giving away as a contest during the menu. And we’re going to do The Routes of Wine, and some others.

When does the mole one start?

The first week of August. Or maybe a little sooner, the end of July. Each one will run for a couple of weeks.

So you say your mom has a restaurant. Has she ever been to your restaurant?

She’s here right now! She’s visiting for the first time, this week. I was just trying to think of somewhere nice to take her tonight. So if you have any suggestions….

Travel the Routes of Mexico at Mexique With Chef Carlos Gaytan