Consistently hailed as one of the top Mexican chefs in NYC, Julieta Ballesteros has worked hard to prove that real Mexican cuisine isn’t about nachos, oversized burritos, and excess amounts of sour cream and shredded cheese. But if you take a look at her three successful restaurants – the refined, French-leaning Crema, the modern taqueria Los Feliz, and now, the border-hopping China Latina — she has mastered the art of fusion, which is no easy task. It’s not necessarily about highly authentic renditions of carnitas, mole, ceviches, or pozole either she tells us. “It’s about achieving the perfect balance in your dishes,” Ballesteros said. “Fusion is about finding out how different ingredients from different cultures can work together in a new and delicious way.”
Over the past seven years, Ballesteros has found serious success with unexpected flavor combinations, introducing New Yorkers to Quesadillas stuffed with squash blossoms, portabella mushrooms, gruyere and truffle aoli, Seared Sea Scallops served with a sweet corn cake, mango pico de gallo and avocado mousse, and a Burrito de Atún, big-eye tuna wrapped in a flour tortilla with sesame-pasilla sauce and jicama relish. At her newest restaurant, China Latina, Ballesteros aims to push the envelope further with dishes, the likes of Huitlacoche Tofu Spring Rolls and Szechuan Beef Wonton Tacos. China Poblana Lo Mein with udon noodles, chicken crackling, and mole poblano, anyone?
We last caught up with you in 2010, when your main focus was Los Feliz in the Lower East Side. What’s happened since then and what are your biggest accomplishments?
Now that I’m the chef and owner of two restaurants, my major accomplishment is being able to keep things on track at both places. The plates have everything that I want, the flavors are there, I’m adding new stuff, and my people are happy.
It’s often said the restaurant industry isn’t always as accepting of women. What has your personal experience been as a female chef and restaurauter in New York City?
You have good and bad experiences, of course, but overall I think it’s been good. I hope I can help prove that being a woman doesn’t make you more or less capable in the kitchen. And I do like to think that woman have an extra edge, in that we’re able to manage any situation!
Of all of the restaurants you’ve opened and the kitchens you’ve worked in, which is your favorite concept or menu? (And yes, you have to choose!)
I love China Latina because the fusion between Asian and Latin is like an explosion in your mouth.
What experience did you have working with Asian ingredients, dishes and flavors before opening China Latina?
I did a lot of research, went to Chinatown a lot, and visited my Chinese friends at home to learn how they cook. Although my food is fusion and not authentic Chinese, it’s important to have an understanding of Asian culture and cuisine.
Fusion can be kind of a dirty word when it comes to food, and a lot of restaurants have been less than successful in implementing it. What do you think makes Crema, which is French and Mexican, and China Latina, which is Chinese and Mexican, successful?
I think it’s the balance. A balance of flavors, a balance of sweet and sour, a balance of the non-traditional and the authentic. You also have to know and understand New Yorkers, and how to please them.
What dish at China Latina do you think is the best representation of you and the restaurant?
I’d say the Braised Short Ribs with Rajas Poblanas and Chinese barbecue plum sauce.
You must have experimented with a lot of different interesting fusion dishes before settling on the current menu. Can you describe a dish that absolutely did not work?
The Scallion Pancakes with Lobster and Pork Belly. The problem wasn’t the flavors, it was the execution that didn’t work. If the people in your kitchen cannot execute a dish 100% on a very busy night, you cannot put it on the menu.
How do you think most New Yorkers conceive Mexican food and how do your restaurants go about dispelling that?
People think that real Mexican food is Tex-Mex or Southwest, like nachos with cheddar cheese, sour cream, quacamole and pico de gallo, or chili. We don’t have any chili, that’s totally Tex-Mex. We have picadillo. But New Yorkers are much more aware of what authentic Mexican food is than they were 7 or 10 years ago, and we have a lot more recognition and support because of that.
Are there any Tex Mex dishes that you can admit to actually kind of enjoying?
Oh yeah, of course! I enjoy chili and nachos, why not!
You competed on Iron Chef against Cat Cora. What first went through your mind when you found out the secret ingredient was ricotta cheese?
Oh my god, it was a real challenge because, well, it has nothing to do with my cuisine. But you have to be ready to go. You have to do the best that you can no matter what ingredient it is.
Have you ever made any of the dishes again that you created during the competition?
I’ve made some of the dishes I made on the show again, but not with ricotta. Now if the ingredient had been chili’s or chocolate or a ribeye or fois gras or lobster…
In all your years in restaurants, what has been your biggest kitchen disaster?
Oh god, I’m gonna tell you right now. The first day we opened China Latina, we ran out of gas. I was with no gas for an hour. No stove, no burners, no grill, no salamander, no fryer. It was one of the first times in my life as a chef that I wanted to cry. It was just something that was completely out of my power.
On a rare day off, what can we find you doing, or eating?
I go to the gym. And I love to go around the city to farmers markets or Chinatown or Little Italy, looking for new products and spices and finding inspiration for my next dishes.
How did you spend New Year’s Eve this year?
I was at China Latina, but my whole family came in from Mexico, so there was a lot of eating and drinking and fun!
What would you say is the number one goal you hope to achieve in the coming year?
I think to grow as a chef, and to grow more as a person. Also, to have all of my places up and running at 200 percent and of course, to get ready for my next new venue or creation!