Being invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City by the foundation formed in honor of the well-known American cookbook author and TV personality is one of the highest honors a chef can dream of, aside from a James Beard award itself.
So when Rogelio Garcia, Bon Appétit’s Executive Chef at The Commissary in San Francisco’s Presidio, was invited to cook a collaborative Día de los Muertos dinner with chefs from all over the country at the famed house, he jumped at the opportunity — even though it was his second time! Rogelio first cooked at the James Beard House as executive chef of the Napa, CA–based restaurant Angele in 2015, when he served a five-course dinner celebrating the seasonal bounty of Napa’s food and wine.
The idea behind the dinner was for the chefs to explore their shared Mexican heritage through their own modern interpretations of Mexican cuisine in honor of Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Accompanied by Commissary General Manager Tessa Vitale, Rogelio arrived in New York one day in advance of the dinner to meet with the other chefs and finalize last-minute preparations. Rogelio was joined by chefs Diego Galicia and Rico Torres of Restaurant Mixtli in San Antonio; Victor Parra Gonzalez of Las Puertas in Buffalo, NY; Jacob Rojas of Tallulah’s Taqueria in Providence, RI; and Alex Valencia of La Contenta in New York City. Special guest Victoria Price joined the chefs to speak of her actor father Vincent Price’s enthusiasm for Mexico’s vibrant cuisine.
Much like the collaborative dinners at The Commissary’s Open Kitchen series, the chefs hit it off right away and worked really well together. “Most of them had cooked at the James Beard House before and had learned lessons the hard way, so tensions were low and spirits were high,” said Tessa of their time in New York. The chefs created a menu celebrating the traditional flavors of Mexico with a contemporary spin for 75 guests. Each chef created an appetizer and an entrée. The evening began with a roster of passed appetizers such as charred avocado with camarones (prawns), corn nuts, and sal de chapulín (grasshopper salt); chia tostadas with mousse de cazón (dogfish), wakame-serrano powder, ikura (salmon roe), and pickled onions; and Rogelio’s signature caviar toasts paired with Casa Noble tequilas. These were followed by a multicourse meal served family style, which included Rogelio’s tinga de conejo con calabazas (shredded rabbit with pumpkin); beef cheek barbacoa with aged chilmole, hibiscus-pickled onions, chirivias (parsnips), and confit potatoes; and Mexican street corn with Eden Corn semifreddo, Cotija snow, and tonka bean–infused faux mayonnaise.
For his part, Rogelio was equally as excited as on his first visit. “All of the chefs had Mexican heritage but a completely different perspective on Mexican cuisine,” he said. “It was an honor to cook with them and truly a memorable experience.”