JOHNNY LEACH, CHEF
“I just love cooking mexican food.”
When I think about exciting Mexican food in Portland, I think about Johnny Leach. Johnny is the Executive Chef of The Hoxton Hotel’s three restaurants: La Neta, Tope, and 2NW5. I first was introduced to Johnny through his wife Helen Jo, who is one of the top pastry chefs in Portland. A native Oregonian, Johnny cut his teeth in New York with David Chang and the ‘Momofuku empire’ before returning to Portland with his family.
The first time I realized that Johnny’s approach to Mexican food was special was when I tasted his salsa years ago. As Becoming Mexican began to take shape, I knew I wanted to hear more about his story.
Johnny was actually the first person I interviewed for the project, back in October when The Hoxton Hotel was in high gear preparing for the opening. As I’ve had the opportunity to watch the menus evolve over the months, Johnny’s dedication to flavor and ingredients has made La Neta and Tope two of my favorite spots in Portland right now. Read on to hear more about his background and what inspires him about Mexican food.
Carly: Where were you born and raised?
Johnny: Born in Portland, raised in Beaverton, but I was always connected to Portland. I moved to Portland when I was 18.
Carly: Were you connected to a Mexican community in Beaverton?
Johnny: No, I wasn’t. There is a big Mexican community in Beaverton and I had friends growing up who were Mexican and we’d spend a lot of time together and have parties. There was always stuff going on, but I wasn’t raised in any specific Mexican group.
Carly: What is your connection to Mexico?
Johnny: My mom is half Mexican. My grandfather’s family came up and he was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. English is his second language. He eventually moved to Seattle. My mom didn’t meet him until she was 18. They were friends, but it wasn’t a father-daughter relationship. He was a part of my life and he’d always randomly come down and hang out for a few days and we’d go up and visit him.
He was a musician. He played Spanish guitar and he spoke Spanish constantly. I was ridiculed by him for not understanding the language <laughs>.
My grandfather loved Mexican food. He’d make a batch of pozole for breakfast every week and have a Pacifico with his breakfast. That was how he started his day. If there was a connection to Mexico, he would be it.
My mom embraces the culture, but the connection comes from my grandfather. She speaks Spanish, she lived in Mexico for a while and studied anthropology in Mexico City, which has one of the best schools of anthropology in the world. She lived there for about six months and has a bond to the culture.
Carly: What’s your heritage on your dad’s side?
Johnny: My dad has European heritage. A mix of Dutch, French, Irish, British. My mom’s mom was Irish. So I’m a quarter Mexican, when you’re going down the bloodline.
I don’t necessarily feel like I’ve been connected to Mexican culture from a sense of being raised a certain way, but it’s always been there. When I was younger, I wanted to connect through the way I was living. Punk rock was really important to me and I’d always want to listen to different Mexican punk rock bands. The food has always been my favorite. From a chef’s perspective, it was nothing that I was looking at from a level of high technique. It was just something I loved, a fun hobby for when I’m not working. About six years ago, I realized it was something I kept circling back to and wanted to go down that road.
A lot of it comes from Albuquerque. My mom grew up there and we visited a lot. In that sense, we had that cultural tie.
Growing up in Beaverton, I had a friend Johnny Olavares, and he’d take me to friends and neighbors. I was always like a showpiece. “This guy’s actually Mexican if you can believe it!” I was always like the adopted Mexican. “Oh you’re a quarter, cool, come hang”. But it was one of those things, where they were surprised that I didn’t speak Spanish.
Carly: Did you learn some Spanish by being exposed to it?
Johnny: Just from high school, I don’t know a lot. I can get by barely, but I’m studying now. When I go to Spain or Mexico, a lot more comes back. I can get around, order from a menu.
Carly: Why are you studying Spanish?
Johnny: I see that window of opportunity closing. I know the older you get, the harder it is. But I also see it as the most practical language for me to understand right now. I want to travel more throughout Mexico, I want to be able to have experiences, I’d like to be able to hire more immigrants and have the ability to communicate with them in the kitchen.
Carly: How often do you go down to Mexico?
Johnny: Not often enough, I’m going down to Oaxaca in March again. I’ve only been down there a handful of times.
Carly: Are they usually personal trips or culinary trips?
Johnny: Both. It always intersects. The first time was three years ago, I went to Mexico City.
Carly: Does the fact that you’re now working with Mexican food change the way that you think or feel about your Mexican heritage?
Johnny: No, not really. I don’t look at the knowledge of ingredients as something that will increase my ethnicity score, I just look at it as a piece of a bigger puzzle that I want to pay a huge amount of respect towards. I’m comfortable with where I am on that ethnicity line.
I just want to learn as much as I possibly can and be respectful in the process. I’m not interested in taking the ingredients and convoluting them, twisting them. I want to push the food to a place where people are thinking about Mexican food before they’re thinking about pizza or Italian food or French food. I think there is so much opportunity there.
It’s more about understanding the product and wanting to push it forward than it is about identifying with my ethnicity. It’s more from a chef’s perspective.
I just love cooking Mexican food. I happened to be exposed to a lot of Mexican food at a young age through some family contacts, but it’s just something that I’m passionate about and I love. I want to cook Mexican food for the rest of my career.
Carly: What’s your process when you’re doing recipe development?
Johnny: It starts with an idea and the ingredients. It’s knowing what’s coming in. With this pickle salad [pictured above], it was to fill out the menu and give it a good salad. Something super simple. It’s a step above just having a side of pickles. A little more thought, a little more flavor.
I’m also interested in exploring the historic aspect. For example, sikil pak is from the Mayan era. It’s one of the most ancient condiments attached to that part of the world.
Carly: Thank you for sharing, I think there is a whole spectrum of experiences that people have being from a mixed heritage. It’s great to hear your story.
Johnny: You should read Octavio Paz, he wrote The Labyrinth of Solitude. He’s a poet, but also just an amazing writer. His family migrated to LA and all his writing is about Mexican identity. It’s not anything new, it’s something that the culture has been dealing with since the Spaniards.
Carly: Yes, people have been having these conversations for a long time already.
Johnny: You putting it into a modern perspective is really awesome.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Published on 30 April 2019.