In The Kitchen with Chef Alex Samayoa of Espita Mezcaleria
By David Santori, EdibleDC
I think I am lucky. Being invited to visit a chef’s kitchen? Learning about his techniques working with fresh ground masa to make tortillas? Standing in the middle of a warm industrial interior with Oaxacan art all around? Staring at a large variety of mezcal? Yes please! Sign me up immediately!
This is a story about immigrants by an immigrant, in which Chef Alexis Samayoa of Shaw's elegant and art-filled Espita Mezcaleria shares his private space and takes me on a tour of his kitchen.
David Santori: Tell me a bit more about your background – what brought your family to the U.S.? What do you remember about your first food experiences when growing up with your family?
Chef Alex: My mum is from Puerto Rico, my dad is from Guatemala and I am from New York. My dad arrived in the U.S. at age 10 by himself to escape a difficult home life, and he traveled all the way to California. He worked and lived in factories, he worked in diners, he made his way to Chicago, Florida and eventually New York, which is where he met my mum. As far as my mum’s story goes, she wanted to leave Puerto Rico to find more opportunities in New York. Together they took on very demanding and strenuous jobs while working long hours. They wanted to make sure they didn’t have to depend on anybody else but themselves.
Growing up, cooking wasn’t really my thing. I wanted to be a history teacher. My mum always cooked and she enjoyed bringing Guatemalan flavors right in our home – triggering fond memories for my dad. Dinner was always at 6:00 pm and we all ate together at the dinner table. I have to say that the art of eating with family or even friends and talking about the food, praising whoever cooked it, embracing each other, drinking, laughing and enjoying each other is slowly disappearing. You know, I still have warm feelings when I remember eating with my family, thanking mum for cooking, thanking dad for providing the food and being happy together. I love family time, sitting down, enjoying food and each other rather than quickly eating-and-going. I think technology changed everything and now people bring a lot of emotions to the table, like talking about politics. But for me, some chicken, a bowl of white rice and mole is just the perfect meal that will always satisfy my soul and take me back to the warmth of my childhood.
David: What was your childhood kitchen like? How has your upbringing influenced the way you cook and think about food?
Alex: We used to do our homework at the kitchen table. I remember watching my mum cook, not really knowing what she was doing or how to cook myself. I remember her peeling carrots with a big knife – the old fashioned way – and helping her with little mundane cooking things like washing cilantro or radishes. I was a bit inquisitive too and I remember asking questions to find out about the ingredients and what they were for. She was cooking from scratch, without books, and from known family recipes as well as what my grandmother taught her.
I enjoy recreating flavors and this is exactly what we did here at Espita. If there is one thing to try on the menu, it’s the black beans for sure. When I asked my mum for her recipe, she did not have anything written down. The recipe went “a little of this, a little of that”. So I had to recreate it from my own taste memory and it turned out beautifully. It’s also good to involve our staff in tasting the recipes and giving feedback. We in the kitchen all are so appreciative of the comments we receive from them and our customers.
David: For those not familiar with your restaurant, how would you describe it? What unique perspective do you bring to the D.C. restaurant industry?
Alex: We are definitely not what you would expect. We are not a Tex-Mex restaurant. We are a Mexican restaurant with a modern vision. We try to hold true to the flavors of Mexico and take risks with the food and recipes we serve. I would describe us as offering rustic flavors combining and intertwining traditional Mexican cuisine with a contemporary stylish approach. We are definitely not common. We hold our own because we are unique and we offer distinctive dishes. Our goal is to stay true to the spirit of southern Mexican food. We have focused our menu on the Oaxacan region with seven styles of mole. We are very proud of our mole. We have a strong visual sense here, and the modern art in the restaurant pairs with the modern twist on Mexican food we serve at Espita. Not only the plates are visually appealing and appetizing, but the walls are also pleasing to the eye and tell a story.
What people may not know about us is that everything is made in-house and nothing is bought outside other than dry goods, fruits and vegetables. We have our own technique of grinding corn in the kitchen to make masa. We like to interpret and reinterpret flavors so it can trigger an experience for our guests – we want to transport you to Oaxaca with authentic flavors, just as you would have if you were there.
David: What do you see as the main differences in the culinary scenes between the U.S. and Puerto Rico/Guatemala? Or even between D.C. and NYC?
Alex: I find that the D.C. restaurant scene is still emerging and booming right now compared to New York. We are very fortunate to be on this block on 9th Street in Shaw with other great restaurants and businesses around, as well as Blagden Alley right behind us. New York is all about location and where is the best foot traffic for a place to succeed. D.C. is not quite all about this. Not yet at least.
Traveling and experiencing restaurant and food abroad, I feel that everywhere else it is about culture, family, friends and the food itself. In the U.S., it is a lot more money driven for restaurants.
David: How has D.C. dining shifted over the years - what have been some of your favorite trends and new restaurants?
Alex: I arrived in D.C. about 1.5 year ago to open the restaurant so I do not know the scene much before I moved. I can already see that this city is a lot calmer and not as much as a rat race as New York. But I'll always I have a big spot in my heart for New York since this is where I’m from.
Right now, my personal favorite spots are The Dabney and Iron Gate.
David: Where do you go for inspiration in the city?
Alex: For now I am completely present here and focused on the restaurant, most my inspiration comes from the energy of the team and interpreting Oaxacan food culture. It took us 8 months to create and we are very happy with the response so far.
But I really enjoy long walks in the city. It keeps me motivated. Instead of being stressed at the end of the day and complain about it, I’d rather go for a walk or read cookbooks. I have over 200 cookbooks at home and I so enjoy turning technology off, relaxing and reading old cookbooks. When I'm alone I am able to focus on creating – new recipes, new techniques, how to improve what we’re currently doing. I think about recipes all the time. You really have to be personally motivated and very patient when do you this job.
Motivated and patient indeed. The day starts early at Espita – at 6:00 a.m. sharp more precisely – when a long and complicated process begins to produce fresh ground masa and make hand-pressed tortillas starting with the in-house process of grinding the boiled heirloom corn from the night before. As Chef Alex explains while I tour the kitchen and watch the staff in action, they learned from their first mistakes at tortilla making because it's a tricky art to use traditional methods and really capture the true flavors of what is as close to authentic Oaxacan as possible. Chef Alex tells me that ultimately his goal at Espita is to create a culturally colorful community centered around healthy eating and ingredient transparency. I raise my shot glass of mezcal and congratulate the Espita team and Chef Alex on a job well done.
- 0.25 oz habanero, seeded
- 10 oz cucumber, seeded
- 2 oz lemongrass
- 6 oz cucumber water (see recipe)
- 0.5 oz lime juice
- 14 oz verjus blanc (white wine)
Take the seeds out of the habanero and dice it into tiny little squares. Wear gloves or wash your hands immediately after and do not touch any part of your body until your hands are completely washed.
Then, proceed to seed and dice the cucumber and lemongrass with a sharp knife. Using the remaining cucumber, puree it and then strain the pureed cucumber. The liquid is the cucumber water.
Juice the lime and combine all the ingredients together in a bowl.
Let marinate for 5 minutes and serve chilled on your desired fish – red snapper, scallops, snapper, hamachi or shrimp.