Alan Delgado, chef
“Food opens minds, and people become curious”
Alan Delgado began experimenting with Mexican food when he was 15 years old. His mother became sick and he took over in the kitchen, taking traditional recipes and making them healthier and more vegetable centric. Fast forward to today, Alan is a chef at the newly-opened Comedor in Austin, Texas, together with Philip Speer and Gabe Erales. The restaurant creates modern Mexican cuisine that is an incredible parade of flavors, taking favorites to a new place.
I was excited to meet Alan and check out Comedor after our conversation by phone. In mid-May, I had the opportunity to show a selection of work from this project in Austin, and Alan joined the panel discussion - together with myself, José, and Heldáy - for the opening of the exhibition at The Carpenter Hotel. In addition to Comedor, Alan also hosts Tumahye, a supper club that brings chefs together for creativity and exploration. Enjoy the conversation!
Carly: Tell me a bit about your background, where you were born and where you grew up.
Alan: I was born in El Paso, Texas. The first five years of my life we spent in a home in Juárez, because that's where we lived, my parents, my brothers, and I. They just had us in El Paso, but we lived in Juárez.
Carly: Why did they have you in El Paso?
Alan: Because of the advantages of being born an American versus being born Mexican.
Carly: How did that work, actually, logistically? Your mom was pregnant and then she just went over the border, or how did that work?
Alan: She just went across the border, and then I was born in America. My dad was working in El Paso as a plumber at the time and they had plans to move to El Paso eventually, so having us born there was just part of the plan to make the transition easier. We moved to El Paso when I was six. Then I grew up there until I was 19, before I moved to Austin. I count El Paso kind of as a Mexico #2.
Carly: I'd love to hear a little bit more about your mom's experience. Do you know how pregnant she was when she went over? Did she go across the border when she started to go into labor? Or did she spend some time there before? I can't imagine it would be easy to rush over the border in the midst of labor pains.
Alan: I don't know. I would have to ask my dad. My mom passed five years ago.
Carly: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.
Alan: I'm guessing it was just when she was going into labor that she was rushed to El Paso. You just cross the bridge, although how long it takes depends on how the Border Patrol is feeling that day. Sometimes, they'll close all the lanes and only leave two open. Right now, it's really bad because they're only leaving two lanes open, and it takes four hours to get across. Before, it would be like anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.
Carly: It's hard to imagine what that would be like, to be in labor and in pain, but crossing the border to another country with a different medical system, different language, different rituals around birth, for her kids. I think that's very brave of her.
Alan: It's crazy to me, because in Juárez there's the Centro Medico, which is free. Healthcare is generally cheaper in Mexico. I think it was about the opportunity to learn English, go to college, and have a better paying job.
Carly: Before your mother passed away, were your parents both still living in El Paso
Alan: Yeah, once we were there, we stayed in El Paso. My dad is from Torreón, Coahuila and my mom was from Gómez Palacio, which is a little town right next to Torreón. They actually met in Juárez, not in Torreón.
Carly: What took them to Juárez?
Alan: Their parents moved to Juárez to get a better job. There are a lot of maquiladoras in Juárez, so they moved to Juárez for that.
Carly: Did you go back to Mexico very often when you were growing up?
Alan: Yes, my grandma was in Torreón and we would go and visit her every summer. We would make the drive to Gómez Palacio. Aside from my immediate family, everybody else still lives in Mexico. We would go visit my cousins and my aunts, go to quinceañeras and all the birthdays. We spent a good amount of time in Mexico. Also, it was cheaper to travel in Mexico than in the U.S.
Carly: Was there such a stark difference for you? Oregon is so different from Mexico, but did you notice such a big cultural difference?
Alan: Not a whole lot, El Paso is mostly Hispanic. Even non-Hispanic people in El Paso still know the language and the culture, so everybody just kind of blends in. It wasn't as strange as when I moved to Austin and the culture was extremely different. It was more American than Mexican. It was something I was not used to.
Carly: When did you move to Austin?
Alan: Ten years ago, in 2009.
Carly: Why did you move there?
Alan: Culinary school. I wanted to be a chef, so it was either Austin or Scottsdale, Arizona, and I do not have pleasant memories of Scottsdale.
Carly: How did your interest in cooking come about?
Alan: At an early age, I knew I wanted to be either a vet or a chef. It happened that we had a dog at the time, and the dog died. It was a very sad moment in my life, and I realized that I couldn't be a vet. Some things about seeing animals die was very sad, so I decided to cook them instead. Huge difference <laughs>.
In my free time growing up, I would always watch Food Network or the Cooking Channel on PBS. I went to UTEP for a little bit. I tried college. I studied Civil Engineering for a year, but it was just not for me. I was really bored, and being in a classroom would kind of irritate me.
I dropped out of college and I started looking at culinary schools. The closest ones to home are Austin and then Scottsdale. I chose Austin just because I had a bad experience in Scottsdale. I used to play soccer and we would go to soccer tournaments. I think we were like 14 when we were in Scottsdale, and the people were very racist.
Alan: I mean, to young kids. Older, white people would just look at us like we were trash. They would look at us and whisper things into each other's ears. I didn't feel safe or comfortable there, so I chose Austin because I heard it was more liberal and a little smaller.
Carly: Was that the first time you experienced racism so blatantly?
Alan: It usually happened when we would travel to other cities to play soccer. Once we went to San Angelo and people called us wetbacks and told us to go back to our own country. The things that people usually yell. Which is strange to me, because I don't really understand the word "wetback."
Carly: I'm sorry that you experienced that. Yeah, it's interesting. I feel like some people really experience racism more blatantly, and for others it's more subversive. In the first way, you see it, you acknowledge it, and it hurts. But then in the second way of experiencing racism, you're like, "I'm not really sure if this is happening." In my life, it's hard to know where it starts. Is it because I'm a woman? A person of color? Not the stereotype of what a Mexican should be? There are all kinds of levels.
Alan: Yeah, I agree.
Carly: Tell me a little more about culinary school. What did your parents think?
Alan: They were fine. My mom was mostly mad because I didn't tell them that I had dropped out of college. My parents have always been very supportive in everything that we do. They've been telling us, it's always been, "As long as you're happy with what you do, it's fine with us." As soon as I told them I wanted to cook, they were on board with me going to school to study to be a chef.
When I moved to Austin, it was a very fun and exciting adventure. Being 19 and going to live by yourself in a different city, away from everybody that you know was very exciting to me. It was fun and crazy, just because this industry is, it's very, how do you describe it? Have you been in this industry before?
Carly: Yeah, I'm a professional photographer, primarily working in the food and beverage industry. I've worked with a lot of restaurants in Portland, and know the industry well.
Alan: I saw your Instagram. It's amazing.
Carly: Oh, thanks, yeah. I have such respect for people who work in restaurants day-in and day-out. It's hard, hard work and takes a lot of passion.
Alan: It does. It's very fun though and always challenging. There's always room for growth. I fell in love with it immediately. The hours and the pay suck sometimes, but if you love it, it's a lot easier. When I started cooking, I never really wanted to cook Mexican food. I don't know why, but it was always the foods that I didn't know how to cook. I wanted to try other things, so I cooked Thai food, Indian, Italian, a little bit of everything.
As life went on, I think everything does a full circle and, little by little, I started cooking more Mexican food without even noticing it. I don't know if I was missing my roots or the culture, but eventually, it turned to where I was opening up a Mexican restaurant.
Carly: Tell me about Comedor.
Alan: It's a modern Mexican restaurant. I think what we're trying to do, as far as food goes, is have the essence and the soul of Mexican food, but trying new techniques, and having a different vision of what Mexican food should be.
We're a young generation of chefs. And, while the enchiladas and tacos are delicious, I feel like sometimes things like that should not be touched or tried to be re-imagined. With being young, and you travel, and you see other cultures and taste other foods, you start to think how Mexican food should evolve. The other chef worked at Noma and Stars Around the World and stuff like that, and he's also from El Paso. His parents are from the Yucatan area.
Our approach to Mexican food is, "What if?" Like, "What if we do this with this and that?" But still stay true to the Mexican soul and the Mexican flavors.
When you see some of the dishes here, they don't really look Mexican, but when you try them, that homey feel is still there. We're trying to take a different approach to Mexican food, and I don't want to say "elevated," but something along those lines.
Carly: I can't wait to eat at Comedor when I'm in Austin next week. Tell me a little bit about your food experience growing up. Was it more traditional Mexican food? Is that why you decided to stray away from it at the beginning of your culinary career?
Alan: I think I wanted to experience something else, and so I just set that aside. Growing up, I ate the traditional pozoles and enchiladas and menudo. When my grandma would come and visit us, she would make gorditas in the morning. It was really good. She would wake us up and she'd be like, "What kind or what flavor would you like?" I'm like, "What? There's more than one?" I grew up eating all that, and then going to Juárez and eating tacos sudados, and chilindrinas and all that good stuff.
Then my mom got sick when I was about 15 and she couldn't eat a lot of fatty foods or a lot of protein. Our Mexican food transitioned from heavy items to vegetable-based dishes. That's when I started cooking more. My mom wasn't able to get out of bed sometimes. I would go to school, and then on my lunch break, I would go home and cook for her.
I ate a lot of healthy Mexican food, which is really nice because you could see both sides of it. The heavy side, and the lighter side, and how things could change. I think that's when my mind changed and I wanted to do something different for Mexican food, where you could have the same flavor profiles but with different ingredients.
Carly: I love that. There's this assumption of Mexican food as one way, and to be put in a position where you had to re-imagine it, while staying true to the flavor profiles, that's amazing.
Alan: In Mexico, they use a lot of lard because it's cheap, but once you take that out and you just add more vegetables to it, with the same spices, you get the same end result, so it was fun.
Carly: Do you have brothers and sisters?
Alan: Yeah. I have an older brother and sister. My sister is 46, I think. My brother is 35. They're both school teachers in El Paso. Growing up, we spoke Spanish in the house, that was my first language. My mom was always adamant about speaking Spanish, but also learning English as a second language.
We are very proud to be Mexican, and I truly love being Mexican. The culture is beautiful, it's very warm and open. It's all about family and friends and sharing moments with each other, which is something I really, really love. You notice it even when you're traveling to Mexico and you're walking down the street, and everyone says hi to you, whether they know you or not, and you say hi back. You try to do that here, and most people will just look at you like, "You're crazy. Why is this person saying hi to me?"
Carly: Yeah, I love the values and the culture. Speaking of Mexican pride, I feel like, having grown up in a place where there aren't as many Mexicans, in the last few years with kind of the anti-immigration, anti-Mexican rhetoric that's been going on, the Mexican pride is even stronger than ever. I don't know if you've kind of perceived anything, or if kind of the political atmosphere has affected the Mexican community down there in Austin or Texas.
Alan: There's this weird clash between people nowadays, which I find a real waste of time, when people think that other people are less than them or their culture is better, or judge you by the skin of your color or where you're from. I think they're very uneducated people.
Carly: One of the things that I love about food is that it's a subversive way to get to someone else who maybe isn't necessarily open to other cultures. Literally it goes into their body. Have you experienced food's ability to cross mental borders and cross political lines.
Alan: Yeah, especially when people are used to eating something just steak and fries, or something like that. They come and they try something that's different, it starts that conversation of, "What is this? Where is this from?" I think they put their walls down at that moment. It's a really good time to have a conversation with them about the food and the culture, and just sneak things in that they probably wouldn't have thought of.
I just had a conversation with people about moles, and how in Mexico there are ladies grinding all the spices by hand to make the paste, and how it takes them hours and hours. A lot of people don't know that, and when you tell them, they're amazed. Food opens minds, and people become curious. Hopefully, they go home and they research more about the culture.
I have a Supper Club as well and it's really nice to connect with people there. The chefs plate the food and serve it to the guests, and we can have a conversation with the people.
We had a taco dinner a month ago. It was really nice talking to people from all over the world just about tacos and where certain dishes come from. It's really nice to connect with people that way and for them to learn about our culture, not just from what they see on TV, but from us, from the chefs. I think, hopefully, it inspires them and makes them love Mexicans even more.
Carly: The culinary scene in Mexico is getting so much attention these days. How do you feel about that?
Alan: I think it's great. It helped with Noma opening up a pop-up in Mexico as well. I think people have this perception of Mexicans from what they get in the news and what their grandparents told them about Mexicans. Once they actually go to Mexico, people fall in love because we're very welcoming people.
I think a lot of times, people have this image of Mexicans. They're very stubborn about it until they actually talk to someone and they see that we're not all murderers and rapists. There are a lot of educated people in Mexico, and we're very hard-working human beings.
Carly: I think that people hearing the individual stories and meeting individual people, is what will change people's perceptions and open their eyes a little bit more. Food is such a beautiful gateway to start those conversations, so thank you for taking that message to people.
Alan: Yeah, I think it's fun. We try to create certain menu items that would catch the eye of the average American who goes to eat at a Mexican restaurant for enchiladas and tacos or tampiqueña, whatever they would order at any other place. We made a Texas quail milanesa, so when they showed up, they saw something familiar. They feel comfortable ordering that, but we had mole rojo. They try it, and then they trust you after that.
It's little things here and there. You make them feel comfortable with the hope that they'll try other things and open their minds, and be able to have a conversation with their friends about how we aren't all that bad.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Published 4 June 2019.