Sazón: a Spanish word that defies concise translation, and to try demands the expanse of a paragraph. Sazón is the indescribable, distinct quality, the signature a chef imparts to his work, a singularity. It is said to embody perfection, grace and inspiration. Fernando Olea, an imposing figure with a warm and generous spirit, is both grace and inspiration. Barely knowing me, he welcomed me into his kitchen with open arms. He had no idea what he’d gotten himself into. We sat down and got to talking––without hesitation, he spoke fearlessly and generously from his heart.
Mark Oppenheimer: What feeds you and what do you feed?
Fernando Olea: What feeds me is the feedback that I get from my guests and friends when they eat my food. That’s what feeds me. You know, it’s amazing to see how much people can be touched by food, even though there’s a transaction. The way that they leave the restaurant, talking about the food, about the experience they have when they dine with me, that’s what feeds me. I remember the experience I once had with three ladies who had lunch at my place. One of them, when they finished the lunch, she was so thankful, so appreciative of the meal; she hugged me, kissed me and says that I touch all her senses. I was very touched by that moment, and when I found out a few weeks later that she passed away––that is when I understood what she meant by touching all her senses. I cannot have any idea how somebody can be when they know they are close to depart. That really, really touched me. That’s one of my biggest experiences, influences and motivation.
Mark: Did you like food growing up?
Fernando: Something that is funny is when I was a kid until 9 or 10 years old, I hate food. I was a horrible eater. They almost spank me to eat. Food was something horrible––I didn’t understand the reason for food, what’s food?
Anyways, I was raised with ham and milk—that was the only thing that I eat. Then one day, I don’t remember exactly when, was the moment––I completely changed, from being a kid who didn’t enjoying nothing about food, into a kid that loved food. I remember my dad used to say, “It’s cheaper to buy you a Mariachi suit than take you out for dinner!” because when we go out to have tacos, I eat 25 tacos—that was a joke my dad made. “No, no, no, I’d rather buy you a suit than to take you out for tacos.”
Mark: Who was your earliest culinary influence?
Fernando: I used to sit in the kitchen, my mother or the maid would be cooking, and I remember the aromas. We used to have a maid from Oaxaca and she used to make some salsas with tomatillo, chile cascavel and chorizo. I just need to start talking about it and I start salivating like a dog––because I remember how amazing it was, and it was something very basic, the salsa chorizo.
My mother cooked a lot, almost everyday––she was a great cook, [one] of the biggest dishes that she prepared was the Bacalao a la Vizcaina that was done in December, and in December, the whole house smell amazing. I have my friends when they became adults to come every year around Christmas time just to eat my mother’s bacalao a la vizcaína. That Bacalao took hours to prepare. You start in the early morning they let it simmer and simmer for hours, something that was once like a consommé––at the end of the day it became like a dry paste but all the flavor was in there, amazing. My mother, my sister Maria, are great cooks, they were no doubt my influences.
Mark: Albert Camus said, “Live to the point of tears. Tears may flow when we encounter the mysterious feelings of tenderness and beauty.” There’s so much beauty in your restaurant. How do you embrace beauty?
Fernando: The way that I embrace beauty in a humble way, and I feel that I’m very fortunate to be able to project in the food my emotions, and that’s one of the reasons that I only cook when I feel like cooking. It’s something so fun, so amazing that even when I’m cooking, sometimes I think that I’m losing it because I can talk with the food, I can connect with the food and it’s fun because…I’m talking with the food and I’m peeling chiles and I’m touching chiles and when a chile falls off the table, it’s telling me it doesn’t want to be in this party and I just put it aside. We are cooking things that are alive, I can feel their essence; they have something special. The way that I perceive food to me is a gift from the universe. I am nothing but a channel to bring this beauty and putting it on the table. It comes very, very naturally for me, because to me, it’s like an inspiration––it’s not me, it’s something that comes through me.
Mark: Your menu is small by design, so on a daily basis you can be spontaneous in the moment and cook whatever you feel like that day. How do you meet the days you feel uninspired? What then?
Fernando: I am a lucky one, I don’t need to meet the days I’m uninspired. If I’m uninspired that day, then I’m uninspired. If I don’t feel like cooking something new, we have the short menu that day and I know it’s okay. If I don’t feel to do it, I just don’t. I prefer to not do anything than to do something uninspired. That is freedom. Freedom to me is to be able to come to the restaurant today and maybe I feel very inspired with lots of energy and I start cooking and I cook five moles. It needs to be done at the right time. It needs to be done with the pleasure, that’s the freedom. The No. 1 priority is to share my passion for food; that’s my number one goal.
Mark: It was very interesting to me that in researching mole, most food histories and compendiums are very Eurocentric without a mention anywhere of mole. The foods of Mexico, Mezo-America and the adjacent regions, unless there is a cookbook devoted to them, to a large extent are found solely in anthropological and scholarly texts.
Fernando: Let me tell you, in Mexico, mole is not a food for everyday. Mole was prepared, especially the big complex moles––prepared for special events: weddings, baptisms, birthdays, anniversaries. This is when the moles were prepared at home. They still have some specific places in Mexico that all they do is moles. Especially in Puebla, the molé poblano, it’s amazing. You go to the market and they sell the mole paste by the pound in big buckets––like five gallon buckets of mole––you bring it home and just add water or chicken consommé. But it surprise me that you didn’t find much written about mole [in food history books] in my opinion, because moles represent the greatest presentation of The Mexican Cuisine.
Mark: Each different restaurant you opened challenged you to do something you hadn’t done before. Were they an end in themselves or experiments with a bigger goal in mind?
Fernando: They were the right thing at the time that I was doing it. I started with Burt’s Burger Bowl; it was an incredible business that allowed me to pursue different adventures. While at Burt’s, we started participating in Wine & Chile Fiesta. What I did at Wine & Chile is I started to bring in some Mexican food. People really enjoyed the food we brought there, which was my motivation to open Burt’s Taqueria on St. Michaels. Burt’s La Taqueria happened because I got such a great response from Wine & Chile Fiesta. It was planned that way; it seemed like a logical step forward to doing something in the middle range, going from fast food to casual dining. At the time, the economy was going so well. In 2000, I started looking for another place to do a little more formal dining and that’s when I got into the space of La Tertulia. I opened there a place called El Encanto. El Encanto was the next step, very similar to what I’m doing here [Sazón] and it seemed it was the perfect time, unfortunately 9/11 happened. Many dreams were cut that day…
Mark: Have you ever been or felt lost?
Fernando: When I was at El Encanto I fell from a ladder. I injured my back and broke a few ribs. I was lost for a long time. I was out of service for a bit and emotionally inside of me was a big trauma. I felt like I was broken. From there, I felt lost for about six or seven years; I was out of myself without even knowing it. I figured it out after I started coming back to be myself.
It took me some time I tried to open three different restaurants, but I wasn’t focused. I didn’t know where I was going. One customer saw me and noticed I wasn’t well, she referred me with some person who [does] meditation, and I started doing meditation and that was my therapy. I started meditating to heal my insides.
Mark: How did meditation change your life and work?
Fernando: My recovery started after the fall when I had Encanto. I use[d to] do meditation four times a week. Eventually, I started doing it myself and it really really help me. I still meditate on a regular basis; I do it daily. The way that I see it, it maybe doesn’t change your life, it doesn’t change what’s happening around you, but it change the way you perceive things. That is very important, you know, it’s not what your surrenders are, but it’s how you perceive the world. The world is going to be the same thing, it’s our relation to how we see it––that really helped me to see the world differently and be more in touch with myself. I do that mediation as much as I want and when sometimes I feel a little lost, that’s what I like to do, ask for divine intervention. Whatever it is, the energy of the universe, God, whatever you want to call it––it really ground me and make me feel very fulfilled.
Mark: What’s your greatest fear?
Fernando: The Unknown.
Mark: What’s your greatest accomplishment?
Fernando: To be happy in life––it’s taken me awhile to get to this point in my life.
Mark: What do you think of recipes?
Fernando: They are great in a restaurant and we follow them. Because people that come to a restaurant they want the same meal this week as they had last week, consistency is very important. We all know that the most successful restaurants are the ones that are consistent. It’s doesn’t matter how great you are––if you’re always bad or if you are always good––people will keep coming. Because if you are great today and you are bad tomorrow you won’t build your customers, because people will never know what to expect.
Even when you adjust ingredients you need a guide to follow. I’ve experienced that in my restaurants, the cooks the first week follow the recipe––the second week they kind of know it––a month later they feel that they know it and sometimes they check the recipe. Three months in a row, they are experts and they know everything and they don’t need to open the recipe book and they do what they remember and after six months your food no longer tastes like your food! So nowadays, I do everything myself, I cook everything, and I check my recipes. I open my recipes and I follow its guide and even though I follow its guide I do adjustments. I have a road I’m supposed to follow.
Mark: What inspires you, stirs your imagination, and finds its way into your kitchen?
Fernando: My world is food. My world is cooking. That’s what inspires me. This is my sport. This is my hobby. This is my fun, this is my work. This is my life. I live for food, to cook. It gives me so much satisfaction.
You attract people, you attract things to happen that sometimes don’t happen, sometimes you cannot put it together, even though how hard you can try, and you can’t. As I mentioned earlier, things are coming so naturally, you don’t have to force anything. If somethings needs to be, it’s gonna be.
Mark: How complicated or complex is it to cook simply?
Fernando: Something good is just that, something good. It’s not complicated. Let me tell you, the simplest things are the hardest to achieve what you want because they are so basic that if you don’t do it the right balance, you kill it. I use chile in almost all my dishes. But I use the chile in a way that entice your palate. I don’t believe in chile to be an ingredient that WOW, the more spicy it is, the better. But for me, chile is that ingredient that you need to treat it with respect, you need to know how much you want to use for most of the palates. I use chile habanero, one of the hottest chiles, and I just use a tiny amount in dish. The habanero is a beautiful chile, very flowery flavors. It’s important to really get in touch with the ingredients.
Mark: Do you have a philosophy about cooking, a guiding principle?
Fernando: Yes, and not only that, I have a philosophy [he takes a placard off the wall]. I’m not sure where this came from. I wanted to have a prayer in my kitchen, I was reading and researching. I found this. It is my philosophy, my guide, and these things that I’m telling you here is something that I practice. It’s very touching for me. [He reads aloud:]
Dear God, I humbled [sic] request:
- Create a sacred space of joy around this kitchen.
- Help me feel the importance of what I do.
- Bless me as I prepare this meal.
- Bless the ingredients I use. (When I was telling you earlier about talking with the ingredients and seeing who wants to be part of this feast––to me, it’s important.)
- May this meal be a reflection and embodiment of your love. (That’s what I’ve been saying here with you today, I don’t cook food just to be mindlessly eaten. No, this needs way above and beyond, it needs to be something special.)
- May its flavors delight and its textures please. (Of course, if you don’t have something delightful and the textures are pleasant, how can you do better than that?)
- May it nourish and comfort. (Of course you need to nourish, that’s a function we need to satisfy.
The kitchen needs to be in tune with this. If they are not in tune with this, they shouldn’t be in my kitchen. To create something special requires to put something special in it.)
Mark: What are your blindspots, the things you overlook or neglect?
Fernando: Let me tell you, some of my soft spots are to be an organized person. I think of myself as an artist and I go by my feelings, I go by instincts. I hate to program things. Some things that are very hard for me are to plan or to write a menu a month or three months ahead of time. I’m a person who loves to be doing it today. I’m great at improvising, but planning is hard for me. In this regard, I have terrific help—my wife. My wife is the one who organize me and keeps me on track. Like I’ve always said, she’s a big part of what I do. It’s an amazing thing. She’s the wind beneath my wings, that’s the way that I see my wife. She’s a big element of what I do.
Mark: Who’s your favorite chef?
Fernando: I have a good friend Chef Martín Rios from Restaurant Martín, a very nice, very humble guy that I really really love and he was a big inspiration on me of what I’m doing these days. I remember when I had the taqueria on St. Michaels and he was the executive chef at The Eldorado Hotel. He was doing incredible dishes and I used to visit him and we talk about the food. The reason I started getting into fine dining was for him. I saw him, what he was doing, and I said I need to do something like what he’s doing, but with Mexican food, and that’s where I start putting some of the ingredients and fresh presentations [into my dishes].
Mark: What would your last meal be?
Fernando: The perfect dinner, zucchini blossom soup with corn, chile poblano, masa balls, follow by a mole coloradito with spare ribs and some handmade tortillas. We’ll finish with some chongos zamoranos.
Mark: What is the setting?
Fernando: A beautiful beach.
Mark: What would you drink with the meal?
Fernando: A champagne.
Mark: Would there be music?
Fernando: Romantic Hispanic music.
Mark: Your dining companion[s]?
Fernando: My wife.
Mark: Who would prepare the meal?
Fernando: My sister Maria.
Story by Mark Oppenheimer