It’s not often you see foie gras tacos on a menu. Julieta Ballesteros has quite an imagination, prone to taking liberties with Mexican cuisine. Her cooking style is unique to say the least — a mix of French and her native cuisine. That’s what happens when a native of Mexico moves to New York to study at the French Culinary Institute. After graduating, Julieta cooked at Mexicana Mama and also created the opening menu for Crema. She’s even worked as the consulting chef for Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Right now, she cooking at Los Feliz, a new Mexican restaurant in the former Suba space on the Lower East Side. Her French training is evident in dishes, like the foie gras tacos with mango compote and salsa as well as slow-cooked beef cheek wrapped in a banana leaf and served with beer & tequila spiked onions. Los Feliz is anything but your average Mexican joint and Julieta is anything but your average Mexican chef.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an artist or chef.
What was your first job in food and what did you learn?
I worked as the assistant to one of the chefs at Alfa Corporativo. I learned a great deal about gourmet Mexican cuisine, presentation and different techniques.
You grew up in Mexico. What are some of your fondest food memories from childhood? Have you included any dishes you grew up on into your current menus?
Yes, many of the dishes on my menus are favorite dishes I enjoyed in my childhood. They’re one of my favorite dishes to re-create because it brings back many memories of being in the kitchen preparing and enjoying it with family. The barbacoa tacos (beef cheek), mole poblano, fideos, and flan napoletano can be found at Los Feliz.
What compelled you to move from Mexico to New York to study at the French Culinary Institute? Did you cook in the states at all before attending school?
I didn’t cook in the US prior to attending school, but I knew I wanted to study professionally as a chef. I chose New York because it is a major center for food, fashion, art, etc. There is so much competition in New York and in order to succeed, you need to rise to the top.
What was your first job out of school?
I was fortunate to help open Mexicana Mama just as I was finishing my studies at the French Culinary Institute. I had created the menu and was the executive chef.
You’re famous for your refined and innovative Mexican cooking. How do you apply the French technique you studied to Mexican cooking? What liberties do you take with your native cuisine?
I use many French techniques, from the style of cooking meats and poultry, process of developing sauces to presentation. I also love to blend the two cuisines, like creating foie gras tacos with a mango salsa and a French onion soup with chipotle peppers. For me, it’s taking cuisines from these countries and making something delicious and beautiful.
Where did you work before Crema? And what was the hardest part about opening your own restaurant here?
I helped open Mexicana Mama during my final months at FCI. Everything was a challenge because there were so many aspects about launching a restaurant besides being in the kitchen. It’s a business so I needed to learn the whole trade from management, service, supplies and finding a space. The legal material was so much in itself!
Do you conceive the dessert menu as well?
Yes I do, although I enjoy working on other parts of the menu.
How do you divide your time between Crema and your other consulting projects?
What was it like to consult on Kitchen Nightmares? What was it like giving advice to Gordon Ramsay? Is he just putting on a show or is he that grumpy in real life?
I’m constantly moving between various locations and checking in on them to make sure everything is running smoothly. Kitchen Nightmares was a great experience, especially to have the opportunity to work with Gordon Ramsay. Everything was chaotic on set but it was satisfying to see the transformation of restaurants in need to a working operation. Gordon Ramsay on the show does scream and snap but off camera, he is a gentleman. It was an honor to work with him.
You created the menu for Los Feliz, a new three-story Mexican in the former Suba space. What inspired unique dishes, like beef cheek in banana leaf, and foie gras with mango compote?
I’m still in the kitchen at Los Feliz on a regular basis. I bring a lot of what I learned professionally and favorite dishes from childhood into the menu there. The beef cheek tacos were a family recipe that I enjoyed growing up. The foie gras tacos are a result of taking French technique and bringing that to Mexican cuisine.
What Mexican chefs do you most admire?
Undoubtedly, it has to be Patricia Quintana. She is a restaurateur in Mexico and author of numerous Mexican cookbooks sold in Mexico and the U.S.
What is your favorite dish on the menu at Los Feliz? What is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
Many of them but the top few are the Barbacoa tacos (beef cheek), the Ceviche Sal y Limon and Huitlacoche Quesadilla. I’m not as crazy about the Tres Colores salad, but I don’t think it’s a bad dish! I wouldn’t put anything bad on the menu.
Other than your own, where do you go for great Mexican in New York City?
Pompano, Centrico, La Palapa, Hecho en Dumbo, Toloache.
Which kitchen tool can you never live without?
I cannot work without my knives.
Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
I’m interested in doing more consulting work, pursuing television opportunities, cookbooks, opening new restaurants, etc.
Address: 109 Ludlow Street, between Delancey & Rivington Streets
Phone: (212) 288-8383