Munchies

How My Abuela Taught My 56 Cousins and Me How to Cook

I grew up in Mexico City helping my grandma cook for each and every one of my 56 cousins. This experience—and the work ethic I learned from that—has made me a better chef.

by Daniel Téllez
Feb 26 2016, 12:00am

All photos courtesy of Copita

When you grow up with 56 cousins, there is always something to do in the kitchen.

I grew up in Mexico City helping my grandma cook for each and every one of my family members throughout the year. This experience—and the work ethic I learned from that—has made me a better chef at my new restaurant, Copita Tequileria y Comida, because I got the opportunity to taste and understand many different things at a young age.

My grandmother ruled the kitchen. I was one of her seven helpers, since I loved to cook and see what she was up to. She would make Mexican candies, and everyone participated by doing everything by hand. Through using wooden spoons and clay pots, she taught me the old-school, homestyle flavors and techniques of Mexico. I fell in love with the kitchen then.

Copita_Duck Sopes

Duck sopes

I got to live with my grandma when I was five years old. I remember that was the age when I started to identify raw ingredients, because she would send me to the market to buy things like cilantro, chiles, and whatever else she needed. I would help my grandma make bacalao with romeritos (stewed dried cod with seepweed herb), huazontles capeados (amaranth greens fried in egg), simple salads, and dishes like that. We would always have at least five dishes for everybody to eat, so there was always something to work on.

Out of my 56 cousins, five of us became chefs working at a professional level.

Those market trips allowed me look at food in a different way: unprepared, as opposed to the final product. She also had her favorite vendors for everything from vegetables to tortillas, the latter of which she would only buy from the one place that made them by hand. All of this taught me the process of seeking out the best ingredients, of anticipating a meal, and of enjoying it eating afterward because of all the work it took. Also, since your family are always your biggest critics—especially in Mexico, because you have such huge families—I learned to not take my job too seriously and not to let my world end if somebody doesn't like my dish, as long as I always did my best.

Copita_Poblano Crab Soup

Poblano crab soup

I never imagined that I was going to be a chef then, but little did I know that this experience would shape the approach that I have toward running a kitchen. My first general sense of camaraderie was one enjoyed in a kitchen. It was then that I realized how much I love watching people enjoy my food, whether it was my 56 cousins or the 500 guests that I serve now at my restaurant on any given day. It was around that time that I recognized how I would plan my life around food, too. For example, I was already planning my lunch (and whom I would enjoy it with) while I was still eating breakfast; I still do this to this day. I also plan out my vacations based on what I like to eat.

Mussels Al Mezcal

Copita_Table shot Copita table shot

Out of my 56 cousins, five of us became chefs working at a professional level. My sister is a chef as well. At 13 years old, she was already working for a catering company. I started to work with her on weekends so I could have money to go out, or just to have enough money to buy a Playstation or a bicycle.

That was my first time in a professional kitchen. I learned a lot of skills from the cooks that worked along my sister—even though I started as a dishwasher. As much as I loved working in a restaurant, I always considered it as a side job because I was going to school for aeronautical engineering. Suddenly, when I turned 18-years-old, I realized that this side job was more fulfilling than the job I thought I wanted to have. I didn't care about the long hours or the pressure or the stress involved when working at a restaurant, because I was exposed to all these elements at a very young age. It was already a lifestyle for me.

I have stuck to cooking ever since. My grandma inspired my huevos rancheros and huevos ahogados (eggs drowned in a red salsa) that I have on my breakfast menu as we speak.

As told to Javier Cabral

Editor's note: A part of this interview was translated from Spanish.

Daniel Tellez, formerly of Anona Neobistro in Mexico City, is the new Executive Chef at Copita Tequileria y Comida in Sausalito, California.