Oaxacan food is a way of living woven together by ingredients, traditions and ancient techniques that are still present in our everyday lives. Its flavours offer infinite possibilities to tempt even the keenest of palates. Exploring the Oaxacan gastronomic jungle is an everlasting journey and Chef Rodolfo Castellanos from Orígen restaurant knows it. Throughout our interview Rodolfo shares the poetic professional and life philosophy that has led him to become one of the most innovative and authentic characters in the culinary and cultural scene of Oaxaca.
How did your passion for cooking begin?
I’ve been involved in the kitchen since I was little. My mom has a “Cocina económica” (small, family run restaurant) that became my family’s first source of income. We were 5 siblings, so we were a big family, and I think that back then women were just starting to have a more active role in making a living and sustaining the family.
“I’ve been involved in the kitchen since I was little. My mom had a “Cocina económica” that became my family’s first source of income.”
What is your first memory of this passion?
It’s funny because the business was at my house, so for me, coming home at lunchtime was like a feast. Every day there were all sorts of dishes and I could never decide what I wanted, so I would pick a little bit of everything or one of my favourites.
What did you like the most about growing up and living in Oaxaca?
I think that growing up in Oaxaca was pretty relaxed. The city has changed drastically in the past 15 years. Back then we were able to go out to play cascarita (street football), we could walk from my house to the city center easily, it was not that far from home – I lived in El Marquesado. That was great, being a kid with no worries about what might happen if you went out. Now it has changed so much, so you need to be more aware. The city has grown considerably and there are so many cars that the dynamics have changed entirely.
What would you say is your role as a chef in Oaxaca?
From the very beginning I wanted to focus on Oaxacan Cooking or on a ‘new’ Oaxacan cuisine at some point, but everything evolved according to the public’s demand. The clients themselves started to show me the path. My intention was to give the customers a different alternative and soon everything started to fall into place. It made sense to work with local producers, decorate with furniture found in markets and use the least possible amount of imported products.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in Oaxaca?
The idea of opening a restaurant. I thought it was going to be easy because I’d already worked in other kitchens, so I knew how things worked. But what I didn’t know was how difficult Oaxaca could be. The major challenge was not having enough capital. I guess we can say I did it ‘the Mexican way’, with lots of courage and enthusiasm, or “como el borras: a lo wey” (to start doing something without planning or without thinking about the challenges that will eventually come up).
Fortunately, the restaurant has been evolving well. It all started with me – waitering, buying, serving, cooking and cleaning. Then I hired the first waiter, the first cook, the second and the third. I bought more plates, another two chairs and so on, little by little. I’ll always say it, this has been the time of my life when I’ve worked the most, still, I naïvely assumed it was going to be the other way around. Now I am aware that businesses should not be started this way, so improvised.
“I feel it is a fantastic opportunity for us to show what we do in the kitchen. I like everything about contests, feeling the adrenaline… but Top Chef goes beyond the tv and the cameras.”
What has been your worst professional experience?
I had a very difficult night at a restaurant I was working at in the United States. It was the first anniversary and we didn’t have any reference of what the public response was going to be… we had no clue whatsoever, so we designed an overly ambitious menu for an amount of clients we weren’t prepared for. It was a nightmare.
And the best?
I think my best professional experience is yet to come. I could say there have been many great experiences in my life, from becoming a parent to getting accepted into school, or getting a grant. There have been many great things and I try to give them the same value. But I like to think that they’re not limited and there are many more to come. As a football player once said when he was asked about his best goal: “the one that is to come”. I really want to stick to that idea.
Congratulations on your participation in Top Chef Mexico. Obviously your career goes back years, you didn’t just become Top Chef overnight. What would like to share about the experience?
I feel it is a fantastic opportunity for us to show what we do in the kitchen. I like everything about contests, feeling the adrenaline… but Top Chef goes beyond the tv and the cameras – it’s a huge platform to show the world that we are here, in Oaxaca. I’ve been able to be part of this, and now it is me who invites you to watch it every Sunday. It’s worth it.
With all that is going on in the international culinary scene, social media, blogs etc. a lot of new projects can get lost or confused, just as is happening with mezcal. How do you think this can be changed?
I don’t believe there are any magical formulas in life. It’s like what happens to some politicians, artists, events or places – like a shooting star. If things are neither solid enough nor well thought out, they’re not likely to last. This is what is happening with some mezcal brands or cooking styles, the media invasion is so overwhelming that everyone has an opinion. Anyone can write a critique and feel super important, when actually, with all due respect, they haven’t even been to Tlacolula.
It’s like the kids in the culinary schools who see a chef on TV; they want to be like him but they have no idea of all the work this person has done in order to be there. Like Alejandro Ruiz; all the things he has done for Oaxaca are extraordinary, but everyone sees him as the famous Oaxacan chef without really knowing all he’s been through. It is not just about looking things up on the internet and coming up with a concept for a restaurant.
Sometimes, we Oaxacans fall so much in love with tradition that we are resistant to new proposals. Do you think you have challenged this tradition?
No, I think we need to be respectful about our origins. We can’t deny or look away from all that has happened over the years and ignore the traditions (such as the millenary dishes we have) that have been born as a consequence. And, well, I don’t think that being so proud of our culture is a bad thing, as long as it is well directed. It is important not to be stuck with the romantic and radical idea of not allowing things to change. There is no room for these attitudes nowadays, times have evolved.
Do you think you can be an innovator without leaving the origins behind?
Absolutely. There’s a quote from a famous, late Spanish chef. He used to say “never stop being local if you have a universal vocation”. To me this makes a lot of sense.
What do you think about the response you have received from both local and foreign customers?
I think the restaurant has been well accepted. We’ve been slowly growing parallel to our capacities, but in general, people like it. Both foreigners and Oaxacans tell me “this is nice, it is Oaxacan but that doesn’t mean I have to have a tlayuda in front of me”. Although I must add, I have nothing against tlayudas, at all! I want to take the ingredients as they are instead of following recipes. I like to focus on what is local, on the product and the producer. We try to find the balance amongst the dishes, the service, the attention… In the end I think one of the goals is to reflect my personality or, better said, I want the customer to be served the way I would like to be served.
And now talking about you outside the professional field, If you were one of the seven Oaxacan moles, which one would you be?
The Chichilo, it’s so complex that you can’t define it. It has very strong flavors, smoked, as if they were impossible to exist… like a burnt mole so to speak – although it is not literally burnt, because that taste is awful. It’s like finding beauty, subtlety and complexity behind its strangeness.
What kind of cuisine do you like the most? Or do you find it absurd making such a categorization?
Food around the world can be so mesmerizing that it would be silly to reduce it into one style. Personally, I love Japanese food for example, but I can’t say it is better than Italian or Spanish or any other. It is great to be amazed by trying new things, to have the curiosity of learning and delving into unknown things. Thus your knowledge bank is bigger and then you can take some of that inspiration into your own food instead of limiting yourself to one idea. I like strange things as much as traditional tastes.
Do you have a special wish for Oaxaca?
In general, I wish that people in Oaxaca could work without having to worry, that you could go places without being afraid of finding them dirty or uncared for, that you could express your opinion freely and with no fear of consequences. Personally I wish that my children had the freedom that we had when we were growing up.
Translated from Spanish by Andrea Gilly and María Ítaka