Trippin on Chillies with Tyler Henry
Tyler Henry will travel for spice. Born in DC, he’s lived and worked in foodie meccas across the world such as NYC, New Orleans, Peru and now, Mexico City. We ran into him cooking at one of his favourite spots in CDMX, Expendio Maiz Sin Nombre and had a chat over some rural Mexican Cuisine.
How did you get into the culinary arts?
It’s a wild story, I was a bartender in New Orleans while I got a business degree and then worked in finance for 4 years in NYC, it treated me very well financially I was happy-ish, I mean, I was comfortable but then I kinda looked around one day and thought, “I don’t wanna be this dude next to me, I don’t love this.” All my money and free time was going towards food and travel so I went to culinary school after work for a year and a half. The day I finished culinary school I quit my job. A day later I asked my favourite restaurant if I could cook there for free and I worked my way up. It’s a spot called Llama Inn in Brooklyn, they serve modern Peruvian food. I had always loved Peruvian food, I was super into the flavours. Peruvian food is so interesting because they had a massive influx of people from Japan and China, so Peruvian food isn’t just Latin, it’s like Latin mixed with Asian. Wasabi can be on the same plate as Peruvian chilli and it’s absolutely ok. That was pretty cool for me. So I was like “let me learn”. I worked there for 3 months for free and then started properly working full time. I ended up as one of their top people there and so they asked me to open their second location. Before opening they sent me to Peru, so I got to go there for a month cooking.
What was it like learning from locals in Peru?
It was super interesting, my chef at the time and mentor still had cooked down there a bunch, he’s famous down there. So I walked into a world like, “here’s where you’re gonna cook for a week, come eat with my family, let’s go to this mountain”, it was amazing. I got to cook with 4 of the best chefs in the country. I was ‘staging’, which is essentially interning in a kitchen environment and you do it either as a very young cook or as a more experienced chef. It’s a really cool experience and it’s what you make it. They feed you, teach you and take you around, it’s your opportunity to learn as much as you can.
So let’s talk about chills.
I like spicy food, I like pungent food, I like food that’s vibrant. I grew up with my mum cooking Indian and Moroccan food all the time, she was obsessed with spice, her spice cabinet was out of this world. Then I started to realise later in life that all the cuisines I’m attracted to; Mexican, Indian, Thai, Moroccan, Turkish, Peruvian - are all based on chillis. Also that these cultures were the cultures that I wanted to go and explore, the ones that were all cooking with chilli and spices. I don’t wanna go to Italy or France and live there or cook for a year, I mean, I can go to Rome and drink wine - fine, and the same with France, but it doesn’t really get me going.
How connected is cooking and travelling for you?
I try to cook everywhere I go now. I prefer setting it up for myself when I get there, even if I have a connection before-hand, it’s just not as warm as walking into the kitchen like, “hey I loved your food, I wanna cook, can I come in tomorrow?”. I have to eat somewhere before I cook there, I have to like the experience. If I enjoyed it, I just go up and ask them if I can come and cook. I’m lucky, it’s always been a yes, no one’s ever said no! It’s important as a cook to build your own experiences and connections, not just relying on other people to set them up for you.
What kind of experience do you need to have at a restaurant that would make you want to cook there?
One is how a kitchen is run. Every kitchen is run differently, how it’s organised, if it has good chemistry, at this point in my career these things are important to me. Another thing is the Mise-En-Place, it’s what you cook with, it’s the base of your flavours in the kitchen. For example you might walk into one kitchen and the chef uses only one type of acid, olive oil, only chillis from certain regions and that’s the base of his flavour. But you might walk into another kitchen and he doesn’t use acid, he uses lime juice and he doesn’t use olive oil because it’s not native to his region, these are the things that create flavour. So to see how chefs create flavour is always super inspiring, and then maybe you take an idea from them and get inspired by the way they create flavour. For me that’s the most interesting, I mean, learning a dish is cool, I can learn it and have my twist on it but it’s so much cooler to learn how they build flavour from the ground up.
What’s been one of the most memorable experiences where you’ve turned up and said, “hey, I like your food, can I cook?”
Wow, a bunch..one that comes to mind though, I recently staged for a month at Nico’s in Mexico City which is one of the top 50 restaurants in Latin America. It’s super OG - it’s been there for like 80 years, and it’s out in the middle of nowhere. It’s the first place I went to when I came down to Mexico cause I wanted to learn proper Mexican cooking. But I didn’t know what to expect. The kitchen there, like a lot of Mexican kitchens, was ran by una Mayora which is like an older woman, who’s not the chef, but she works way fucking harder than the chef and all the recipes are hers. So the Mayora Guille, who ends up being like my mother, she’s been working there for 22 years. Works 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. So I pretty quickly recognised that she was the one with the most to teach me, and she realised that I could work hard. I told her “I’m gonna wake up and be here before you so I can learn from you every single day”, she was like, “awesome". So I would get there early every morning and she would make me breakfast. She made me a different breakfast every day for 30 days straight, with hot chocolate, different bread, a different dish she wanted to show me, and then it was like “cool, what are we cooking today?” and we’d just cook all day. She’s the best cook I’ve ever worked with. I got invited to her house a bunch too, we became homies - so that was a really cool experience. I just thought it was amazing, that this super highly rated restaurant was being ran behind the scenes by Mayora Gia. She doesn’t court any attention, doesn’t mention any of the awards, she’s just in there, working every day - I found it so admirable especially in this day and age when cooking has kind of become something people want credit for.
How did you end up in Mexico City?
I felt drawn here because I love big cities. Istanbul was a thought, Rio and Barcelona too, but I wanted to learn Mexican food so I came to Mexico City to cook for a month, went to Oaxaca to cook for month and I fell in love with the culture, the people and the food so figured I’d stay here for a while.
So we crossed paths at one of our favourite spots to eat in CDMX, Expendio Maiz Sin Nombre. How did you get involved here?
It was after I spent a month cooking at Casa Oaxaca, I came back to CDMX and ended up meeting Jesus, the owner of Expendio and I just fell in love with him, his restaurant and his cooking! Jesus cooks this wild, rural, Mexican food, it’s amazing. Also all the ingredients are his own, he grows and produces them in Guerrero, from the salt to the mezcal. So I became really good friends with him, after 3 days he let me stay at his place sharing his twin bed with him, that’s the thing with Mexican people that I’ve found, they really open their hearts and homes to people. I cooked at Expendio for a month and he realised that I had some flavours that he wanted to learn, so he was like, “why don’t we do some events together?”. I’m lucky, his restaurant is super close to my place so Expendio is like my backyard kitchen, sometimes when I wanna cook breakfast I can just come over here and use the kitchen which is pretty awesome.
What’s Papa Zooks all about?
Papa Zooks is a serious passion project for me and a friend of mine, a bad-ass chef named Sandy. After I left Llama Inn, I went to LA to cook at this pop-up for a month and I met Sandy. It was another chef we both knew who had organised this pop-up, so me and Sandy were cooking for 100 people every day for 3 weeks straight, creating new menus and whatever, and we just really hit it off as friends. After the pop-up I went back to NYC and we lost a little contact, she was sailing around the world or something. Then randomly she called me the day I quit my job in NYC and was like, “I’m really uninspired, lets cook together” and I was like, “yo I just quit my job I’m moving to Mexico, come out”. So we built this pop-up concept, around the food we like cooking which is a lot of spice, eating with your hands, super intimate, no pretension. She’s Vietnamese so she’s super skilled in South-East Asian food and then a lot of that food I can apply Peruvian and Mexican chillis and flavours to. So we started playing around with that, it kinda became a dream of ours to cook this kind of food for people we love and chefs we love. So we did a pop-up in LA, a bunch in Mexico City at places like Expendio, Cicatriz... we did one in NYC in a Michelin star restaurant which was super fancy. I don’t know how they let us take over it but it was so fun! And now maybe it will turn into a restaurant here in CDMX, or maybe not, who knows?!
What is it about pop-ups that makes them so…popular?
That you can collaborate with someone else and cook food together without needing the brick and mortar. It can be totally different depending on the chef and place, but I try to only organise pop-ups either where I’m taking over the restaurant, or if it’s with someone that I really wanna collaborate with. It can be a one-night event, where it’s ticketed and we have a full tasting menu, or it can be like, “okay shell out five and we go until we sell out” smoke weed, do whatever you know? Totally depends on the place. And then sometimes you can do a weekly take-over. Its really situational, never too profitable, you kind of like break even but you learn a lot, it keeps you on your toes cooking in different places, different kitchens for these short bursts. Learning how to get along in someone else's kitchen.
Where’s next on the list for Tyler?
Tokyo, I was planning to move there after Mexico City but I’m really enjoying myself here so that might get delayed for a while. Tokyo hits every check for me in terms of food, culture, big city and lots of things to learn.Check out Tyler Henry's Guide to Mexico City.