Alejandro Huerta Carrillo is, today, head chef at No.92 wine bar and restaurant in Glebe, NSW, and “applying the best techniques, using different flavours and textures”.
Things were sometimes a little different earlier on in the young chef’s career.
“I remember seeing all these techniques in books and magazines but always thought they were impossible to make or you needed to have a chemist degree in order to make spheres and foams”.
It took a mentor to show the aspiring chef from Mexico that, “the only thing keeping you from learning is looking up things and reading”. From then on, Alejandro became “obsessed with cookbooks” and now has a big collection of his own that he loves.
Importance of having “passion”
Throughout his formative years, there seemed to be particular chefs at times in his development who helped to show him even greater possibilities in cooking.
“One of the first chefs I worked with was Enrique Olvera from Pujol in Mexico City. He helped me to understand what working in a kitchen is really about. He was one of the first chefs to make me realise how important it is to have discipline and organisation, and most importantly, passion. The way in which he saw Mexican culture, all their ingredients and history was truly inspiring”.
Years later, at No.92, Alejandro says owner Angela Kasimis, has given him “total freedom” to create anything he wants, to put the passion and organisation together “using the best ingredients we can”.
Blue swimmer crab and Aguachile
One item on the menu uses blue swimmer crab. “I wanted to create a very simple but flavoursome pasta using one of my favourite ingredients. In Mexico we have something very similar called “Jaiba”, and it’s one of the most delicious things there could be. We just add some lime and chilli, and that’s all you need”. The dish is served with house made tagliatelle, brown butter, pine nuts and bottarga, and finished with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Another Mexican dish offered at the restored 1800’s Victorian terrace venue is tuna in burnt cucumber Aguachile (pictured below). This is a popular type of ceviche in Mexico which translates as Agua (Water) chile (Chilli) or ‘spicy water’.
“For this one, we burn some cucumbers, onions and habaneros, blend them with coriander and vanilla. We then make “Tepache” which is a pineapple fermented drink, in which we cure some onions. Finally, we serve the fresh tuna with the Aguachile, some fresh cucumber and olive oil”.
Ferran Adria and unique dishes
During his early career, a clear influence was chef Ferran Adria and sibling, Albert from El Bulli. The striking name of the restaurant, taken from the owner’s French bulldogs, overlooks a bay on Catalonia’s Costa Brava Spain, run by the two brothers.
Ferran Adria, who is well known for creating “culinary foam” (e.g. freeze-drying or freezing with liquid nitrogen), is often associated with ‘molecular gastronomy’. This involves ‘taking a well-known dish and transforming all or part of its ingredients, and modifying the textures, form and/or its temperature”.
Alejandro says it was Ferran and Albert who, “made me feel passionate about being able to create unique dishes and textures that no one else did before”. But it was chef, Alfonso Cuevas, from a small restaurant in Mexico called El Racó, who inspired Alejandro to be confident to explore unusual cooking techniques. And become a lifelong cookbook reader.
“Using our creativity in order to help whoever needs it”
Alejandro’s says he had an “amazing” time living in Spain. “I was working at Fundacion ALICIA, which is a space fully devoted to food research and development. There was also a focus on hospitality, food industry and social environments as well as preparing recipe books for patients with different allergies or even cancer and diabetes”.
The private, non-profit foundation enjoys strategic leadership from Ferran Adria, which showed Alejandro further culinary possibilities. “It was a very interesting experience in a way, because it showed me that there’s so much more that we, as chefs can do, apart from creating beautiful and tasty dishes. We can also find ways of using our creativity in order to help whoever needs it, which was very fulfilling for me”.
“There are some things that have blown my mind”
Today, Alejandro’s food philosophy at No.92 is very much focused on ‘creating honest food’. “I guess that sustainability has become more and more important for us. We try to use every single part of any ingredient we can source, using as many local and seasonal ingredients as we can, some native Australian elements as well. There are some things that have blown my mind like the mountain pepper or Geraldton wax. We are in constant communication with our bar manager in order to share ingredients and reduce our wastage”.
Another popular dish is swordfish in salsa verde, made with tomatillos, coriander and green chillies, usually serrano. Alejandro points out how “the texture of the kingfish and the flavour go really well with the acidic and bitterness as well as the subtle spiciness of the salsa”. The dish, which is finished with Davidson plum powder and purslane reminds Alejandro of “home and the many holidays with my family on the beach in Manzanillo, eating fresh fish with green or red salsa and lime to top it up”.
“We try to keep good hours and spread shifts”
The early career experiences continue to influence Alejandro today. Not least, in dealing with the everyday demands and stress of a busy restaurant kitchen.
“The most important part is to have a good environment inside the kitchen, and to treat everyone with respect. I remember being afraid of sous chefs or feeling all the pressure of being an apprentice and to not make any mistakes, But I came to realise that when there’s people eager to teach you and help you then that becomes much easier. Seeing how others manage their teams really changed my view”.
Alejandro says he always likes to find a way to make his staff ‘feel like a family’. “We try to keep good hours and spread shifts, and organise some group bonding experiences, from going for a drink after we finish and playing some bowling and laser tag to getting together and celebrating our staff birthdays. In the end I was also an apprentice and had many chefs that were that way with me and it helped me a lot”.
Quality time with partner and friends
Time away from the pass is of course, always important too. Alejandro believes, “the best way to enjoy your days off is with your loved ones and making sure you have a good time”.
He says he also loves watching and playing soccer. “Watching films is also a very important part of my life, plus listening to music or trying new restaurants and being inspired. Always try to have some quality time with my partner and my friends”.
The importance of family is emphasised again when offering advice to a young chef at the start of their career. “Understand that working in a kitchen team is the same as being part of a family. You need to look after each other and being willing to help and guide. There’s no one or any job beneath you, only equals around you”.
Alejandro’s career experiences, learning and discovering with mentor chefs, remain an important part of his own individual approach to cooking and hospitality today.
“I love being able to share a bit of who I am to every guest. Creating new dishes, and being able to make combinations of flavours and textures, is really interesting for me”.