Chef on the Run
Iliana de la Vega has been making traditional Mexican cuisine for more than 25 years and while she’s appreciative of the sudden recognition, it really is all about the work
by Anne Bruno
Photographs by Claire Schaper
Chef Iliana de la Vega is a woman in constant motion. On the morning we meet in her East Austin home, she’s working on a menu for a Cinco de Mayo celebration to take place on the campus of Stanford University. As one of only three consulting chefs there, her work in the dining halls and concept cafés of the prestigious institution brings a food-centric perspective on cultural learning.
As soon as our conversation ends, the Mexico City native will be on her laptop emailing contacts in Oaxaca about a private tour she’s leading in April, and then it’s out the door to El Naranjo, the restaurant she and her husband, Ernesto Torrealba opened in 2012, where she is executive chef.
While de la Vega travels to Mexico and Stanford’s campus several times a year, as well as other locations to consult with clients, most of the work she does outside of the restaurant takes place via laptop and cellphone in the unassuming chef’s home office, otherwise known as her kitchen table.
The semifinalist for this year’s James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest is low-key by nature. It’s apparent that although she’s deeply appreciative of the attention such recognition brings, for de la Vega, it’s all about the work. She conveys that accolades are nice, but she’s not doing anything now that she hasn’t been doing for more than 25 years; she has always been steadfast in meeting her own standards, which are typically higher than anyone else’s.
Widely recognized as an expert on traditional Mexican cuisine, for years de la Vega has been lauded by the likes of The New York Times and Bon Appetít for her hands-on skills and historical knowledge. To hear her speak on the seemingly endless varieties of Mexican chiles is a short-form master class encompassing millennia of her home country’s heritage. A quick YouTube search reveals cooking demonstrations, conference presentations and media interviews in both English and Spanish.
De la Vega’s first restaurant and subsequent cooking school were located in Oaxaca, her mother’s hometown. She and Torrealba, an architect by training, moved there shortly after getting married and opened Restaurante El Naranjo in centuries-old colonial building. For almost 10 years, de la Vega created dishes that highlighted a balance of flavors using only fresh, handpicked ingredients, conspicuously omitting lard. “It was a bit radical to the people there, and many of the locals didn’t like it,” de la Vega explains. “But what I was doing was going back to the real roots, and that’s not lard. Lard came with the Spaniards. It wasn’t there before. Chiles, tomatoes, corn, beans — fresh and where you can experience all the flavors. And I like lard, just not when I’m cooking a mole.”
In 2006 the region was engulfed in political unrest, and in a matter of days, de la Vega and Torrealba made the wrenching decision to leave Oaxaca with their two teenage daughters for the United States. The family started in New Mexico but soon moved to Texas when the Culinary Institute of America’s newly established San Antonio campus came calling, asking de la Vega to initiate a Latin Cuisine program, which she led for five years. “When we first came to the U.S., it was very difficult,” she says. “And after I started at the CIA and was commuting from Austin to San Antonio, a lot of time alone in the car, I realized I was mourning what we left. I really missed it.”
After a successful trial run with a food trailer, de la Vega and Torrealba opened El Naranjo at 85 Rainey Street. The restaurant’s reputation has gained even greater attention for its chef and piqued an interest in the places from which she draws inspiration. Three and a half years ago, de la Vega and her daughter Isabel Torrealba, a journalist and anthropologist, started Mexican Culinary Traditions. The guided tours and cooking classes they lead in Oaxaca and Mexico City are another thing on the busy chef’s plate, but they feed her passion for sharing everything she loves about Mexico.
A Typical Workday
Chef de la Vega’s workweek starts on Tuesday morning and winds down after the final brunch service late Sunday afternoon. Sunday evening is downtime, and Monday is her official day off. That doesn’t mean that Monday is without work, but the goal is a somewhat slower pace, doing what didn’t get done the week before and preparing for the one ahead.
Tuesday – Saturday
De la Vega and Torrealba have breakfast together. She checks emails and works on recipes for the restaurant and her consulting clients, including Stanford University and other public and private organizations. The chef and her husband head to the restaurant in separate cars.
At the restaurant, prep for the day’s meals are underway as the kitchen buzzes with activity. “I have a good team. I expedite things, but my team is reliable, very professional. That let’s me breathe.”
De la Vega and Torrealba eat lunch together before he leaves to attend to the business side of the restaurant and she and her team prepare for dinner. “Some things I need to do myself, like one of our three moles – there’s something about the way I put it together that’s just different. I enjoy making the bread myself when I can. And I can prep anything and jump in the kitchen at anytime, I like that too.”
De la Vega stays through the dinner service, reviewing plates as they leave the kitchen and working the dining room. “I like to know
feedback right away, good or bad. I want the experience to make people happy, so if there’s something that needs attending to, I want to know now so I can do something about it, not 10 days later online. Also, I love answering questions about the food. I may help a customer choose something for their child. We don’t have a children’s menu. I don’t understand those — what do children eat? Food! I’m always happy to make sure something works for them. Mainly, I want people to try and learn for themselves what they like or don’t like.”
“Our last seating at the restaurant is 10 p.m. I may leave once the food is out, so I’m usually home by 11. We cook something together every evening when I get home.”
After brunch service at the restaurant ends, de la Vega heads home and it’s time to relax. “We may have a glass of cava and watch a movie or walk the dog and do some gardening.” De la Vega says she likes the idea of being disconnected, but it’s hard to do. She’s not obsessive about checking her phone throughout the day but says that’s how business is done. “I will respond right away when I need to, but I try not to interrupt things I’m doing. For my daughters, I will always answer right away — that’s important — I will always be available.”
Typically de la Vega and Torrealba have dinner between 7 and 9 PM, either at home or out. They might read or catch up on things around the house. “I guess you could say I like to stay busy.”
De la Vega’s one full day away from the restaurant
Mondays typically find de la Vega doing her personal shopping at Central Market. “I like to see what looks good. If the girls are home, we might do something special. Otherwise, it’s whatever we feel like for the week. At the fish and meat counter — I don’t actually like to eat a lot of meat — I’ll get several things that we’ll have early in the week. I never freeze things like that. Why would you want to buy fresh and then put it away in a freezer?”
De la Vega and Torrealba share a light lunch in the afternoon. She may talk with Isabel and contacts in Mexico about their upcoming trips. “It’s about the culture and the food; that’s how you know a place, I think.” De la Vega also does all of the restaurant’s social media. “At one time, we had someone else doing it, but it’s too personal — it’s about how you want to say something, to show what you’re doing.”
“Ernesto does some food ordering, I do some and our Chef de Cuisine does some as well. But Ernesto does payroll, accounting and generally handles the business end of things. He’s very good at that and he likes it; I don’t have an interest in that end of things. So that works out well.”
On Monday evenings, the couple might have friends over or go out to dinner. “We are together a lot — we’ve been married for 33 years, so we each know how the other likes to do things, which is good!”
Chef de la Vega
• Recipient of Ohtli Award, the Mexican government’s highest honor given to Mexicans living abroad (2014)
• Named Hispanic Female Entrepreneur of the Year by the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (2014)
• Appointed Culinary Institute of America’s first Specialist for Mexican/Latin Cuisines, Member of the CIA’s Consultative Council on Latin American Cuisine and launched the CIA’s Latin Cuisines Certificate Program (2007-2012)