If you happen to have a table near the semi-open kitchen when you visit Amaranta, one of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America, you might notice a young man with an intense expression of concentration working the line. He pauses occasionally, looking out over the dining room. It's brief—he's busy—but perceptible. His expression changes, softening into a sort of quiet wonder. This was his dream, and now it's real. The restaurant is full and the guests are happy. They are deep into conversations, a bit buzzy on wine or mezcal, but he can see them pause, offering their utmost attention to servers who arrive table-side in black suits to deliver plates and introduce the delights that sit upon them, waiting to be savored.
That man is Pablo Salas, a 34-year old chef who is just about to celebrate four years of steady, if quiet, success in Toluca, the city that is the seat of Edomex, the state of Mexico. He's a local celebrity of sorts, but is not as widely known outside of the country—not yet, anyway. That may soon change, thanks to Amaranta's inscription in the 50 best list, ranking at #40. The judges' panel praised Salas for applying “contemporary but unshowy techniques to local produce, creating big and bold flavours in the process.”
At first glance, Amaranta may not seem a candidate for 50 best, located, as it is, outside Mexico City. But at about an hour's drive from the capital, the restaurant is accessible, and a growing number of chilangos and tourists alike are making their way to Toluca to taste for themselves: Is Salas everything Restaurant Magazine says he is?
He is—and more. Beyond being a wildly talented chef, Salas is a genuinely good guy. He seems aware that this dream could have slipped from his grasp completely had he not exercised a tremendous amount of discipline and tough decision-making. That's true for any chef, of course, but for Salas, who overcame addiction and has been clean and sober for four years, it has been even more so.
The love and support of his family have also been fundamental to his success—and the fact that Amaranta even exists. His father invested money in the restaurant, “and put up with all my problems,” Salas noted, and, along with Salas's mother, works the front of the house. Salas's brother, Francisco, is also on staff at Amaranta; he is the sommelier.
Salas's path to the 50 Best list wasn't exactly a straight one, though he showed promise at an early age. He entered culinary school at the age of 17 and finished just short of three years later. “My instructors, the grandes maestros, didn't just teach me about food and cooking,” he said. “They also taught me about the life of a cook: it's working hard, day in and day out.”
Hard work hasn't been merely a theoretical concept for Salas. His first business out of culinary school was making and selling desserts (cheesecakes, tarts, and profiteroles) to restaurants around Toluca, including the one that Amaranta now occupies.
Next, Amaranta is born...