By Greg Cortelyou, Chef of Sunset Grille in White Plains
Scott Faupel and I started working together on plans to open a new and “authentic” Mexican restaurant just a little over two years ago. Scott has had a lifelong love of Mexican food; mine developed over the 10 years I lived in Austin, Texas, and was totally full blown after several trips to the heart of Mexico starting in the late 1990s. Scott had in his mind as a model the Border Grille in Santa Monica, and I had Fonda San Miguel in Austin. We agreed on many things while planning the menus and dÃ©cor of the Sunset Grille, but one thing we knew for sure: we didn’t want it to be like other Mexican restaurants. It was never about being better, it was about bringing forth a new way (for us in Westchester) of experiencing the true cooking of Mexico.
To be sure, this has been a learning experience on many levels. For one thing the cost of quality raw ingredients year round can be high, as well as the labor needed to bring the menu to life. Real Mexican food is incredibly labor intensive: chile peppers need to be cleaned, tons of veggies chopped, masa ground from dried, tamales stuffed, empanadas rolled, chiles rellenos stuffed and fried, sauces made and then the mole. Our mole poblano takes about two days of preparation before it’s “fried” and everyone gets involved in the process. It’s always an exciting day when we actually fry all the toasted and ground ingredients. We all take turns stirring the huge pot and argue over how sweet, how hot, how much chocolate. The finished product is four kilos of mole paste that is divinely complex and delicious just as it is.
Another challenge in the beginning for us was that people wanted Mexican food they had become accustomed to: fajitas, chimichangas, burritos, nachos, and enchiladas topped in mountains of melted cheese. There is nothing wrong with any of those things when done well, but those things had nothing to do with what we wanted to be. We had people telling us that what we were doing wasn’t Mexican food. How could we call ourselves a Mexican restaurant without sizzling platters of fajitas walking around the dining room. It was upsetting but we knew we had something and needed time for people to start to get it. I remember when doing research in the months before the restaurant opened, reading a lot about Fonda San Miguel in Austin, considered by many to be the best Mexican restaurant anywhere. When they were starting out, they had Diana Kennedy consulting (they are as far as I know the only Mexican restaurant in the states with her seal of approval) and she was very against the idea of putting chips and salsa on the table as people sat down. “Mexican people don’t do that, at home or in restaurants” she said. So they started out not making chips and salsa so available, but the outcry was so intense they started doing it on request only.
Real Mexican food is about using very humble ingredients and producing absolutely delicious and satisfying meals. Meat is used as an ingredient, not so much as the main event. One of the most amazing and filling meals I had on my most recent visit to Mexico was gorditas, which are fat masa cakes topped with green salsa and chopped onions. The texture of the masa was rich and velvety, the sauce was a perfectly balanced blend of green tomato, cilantro, and chile and nothing else was needed. It is with food memories like this that we started out and with which we continue to refine what we do. Lots of people “get us” now and come back regularly. The ones that didn’t or don’t have lots of other choices. In reading various food blogs here and across the country, we find that there is a profound interest in a “new” Mexican cuisine. Well it’s new to us but it’s been served on tables in Mexico for generations. Only now we are discovering the “Joy of Mexican Cooking.”