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Crossing the Border with Mexican Chef Jair Tellez

Chef Jair Téllez is passionate when it comes to cooking, but even more so about people. “My language is food, but people is the medium – connecting with others is what it’s all about for me.” And the Mexico City chef has become a master of his medium, with two restaurants ranked among the 50 Best in Latin America

The chef made his mark in 2001 with Laja, one of the first ‘high end’ restaurants in Baja California, and more recently with Merotoro in Mexico City. Both highly acclaimed places are on San Pellegrino’s Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list and both feature unpretentious but creative menus that reflect Tellez's life in Mexico. 

Téllez, 42, is from Sonora. The local cuisine of this border state, which encompasses both desert and coast, is a true fusion of meat and seafood, and a curious variation of what most of us think of as Mexican cooking. Hermosillo, the state capital where Téllez was born, is in the middle of an arid region but only an hour and half from the coast, so steakhouses are as integral to the local food scene as are seafood stands.

At his restaurants the dishes are based on Mexican culinary traditions but with a creative spin. Influences are from both California (emphasis on simple and local, seasonal, high quality ingredients) and Spain but there are always references to the centuries old traditions of Mexico.

Even an Asian touch sneaks in from time to time “because I love Asian cooking. I have cravings for certain foods, and I go from there,” Téllez muses. “Of course I work with what is available and local; on the coast it’s more limited whereas in the capital [where the chef is based these days] the options are huge so I have to pick and choose; it’s more difficult in a way.”

The changing seasonal menu might include a pure invention like estofado de hongos con puré de broccoli, almendra tostada y jamón Serrano (stew of wild mushrooms with puree of broccoli, toasted almond and Serrano ham) because the mushrooms are around in the rainy season and so is lots of broccoli. 

Vuelve a la vida de maiz criollo con leche de tigre y erizo, on the other hand, is a seafood cocktail (vuelve a la vida means return to life) that’s a classic everything-in-the-sea pick-me-up for those suffering a hangover. Téllez’ favorite is the French style quijada de cerdo (pork jowl) served on a bed of lentils. It’s the only dish to remain on Merotoro’s menu since the beginning. "Simply because I love it!” says Tellez.

The chef, now solidly chilango (a Mexico City dweller), adores the city “in the way that only someone not from here can” and plans to stay put for the time being. He sees “el D.F’s” restaurant scene evolving: “In many ways, Mexico City is more and more part of the world," he said. "It’s exciting to see younger people doing stuff with pride and commitment regardless of whether it will function financially or not. Previously it had felt stuck, less colorful and less emotional.”

His plans for the future are simple and delicious: “…to be a happy dude! For me, food is an excuse to make meaningful human connections."

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