Fabian Gallardo on the Myth of Greasy Mexican Food, Making Killer Ceviche
Fabian Gallardo wanted to become a food photographer long before he ever put on his kitchen whites. Born and raised in Leon, Mexico, today he’s channeled that creative passion into the light, bright and brilliant flavors at LA's Petty Cash Taqueria.
Fabian Gallardo. Photo provided by Petty Cash Taqueria
Prior to becoming Chef de Cuisine at one of Fairfax’ hottest taco joints, he spent over a decade working his way through culinary school and top kitchens in New York City — L’Ecole, Café Boulud and Vice Versa — before heading to California. We chatted with him about applying refined culinary techniques to classic street food, how to balance restaurant and family life, and the biggest misconception about Mexican cuisine.
How did you get started cooking?
I was always interested in photography, and 15 years ago I always loved photos of food. I was trying to get into food photography for a magazines, but then I said, “Well actually I think I should cook it.” My first job — I started out in French cooking at Café Boulud in New York. And then I moved to Italian cuisine [at Vice Versa] and did a little bit of everything — catering [with my own business] and lots of things. But my first job was as a line cook for Daniel Boulud.
What's the main difference between the NYC and LA dining scenes?
People here are more into being health-conscious and eating food that’s been locally sourced. That’s one of the first things that I noticed. And the pace — in New York everything has to go fast. Here people tend to enjoy their meal more and take more time for dining.
Instagram seems to a huge part of popular food culture these days. To what extent is social media influencing what you put on your menu?
It inspires me because I have other chef friends, and when I see some of the pictures that they take of the restaurant or their main dishes, it helps with creativity. Like, “Oh, I think I can do that with a Mexican touch at Petty Cash,” for example. So it helps me to be creative, absolutely.
Sea urchin guacamole with chicharonnes. Photo provided by Petty Cash Taqueria
As chef, husband and father, how do you manage the restaurant lifestyle and hours with having a family?
Finding balance is the hard part to be honest — between family time and restaurant time. Both are important and both deserve the right amount of time. But when it is family time, it is 100% family time. I like to get all the teams — BOH [back of house] and FOH [front of house] — involved and own their responsibilities. That's how you don't get all the weight on you. It’s tough though. Like right now, I’m driving back to pick up my daughter from school, and I’m going to work as well. I’m multi-tasking — that’s the secret.
How does it feel to go from preparing haute French and Italian food as a sous chef to creating more casual Mexican dishes today as head of the kitchen?
It feels like home. I am very connected to Mexican cuisine, and as a kid I remember eating tacos every Friday with the family. So those are great memories. Today, I definitely apply all the techniques that I learned from all the other different cuisines — like French and Italian — to Mexican ingredients to create something as simple as a taco. Using sophisticated cooking techniques like sous vide to get nice flavors — it’s fantastic. It’s the way it’s supposed to taste. If a taco is good, and then you apply new techniques to old ingredients, it becomes better.
And as far as going from a line cook to sous chef to now head chef at a restaurant — it’s like a reward, the goal of my achievement. It’s like, you work hard and once you reach the top position, you work harder. There’s more pressure, but with all the years before, I was learning how to handle all that pressure.
What’s inspires your unique menu combinations (sea urchin guacamole, roasted cauliflower nachos, etc)?
Being hungry all day [laughs]. I keep munching different stuff all day, and if I like it I go to my team, and we brainstorm on how to get that idea into a dish. I eat a lot, and I try to eat out as much as I can. I try to go to different restaurants at least two to three times per week.
The dining room. Photo provided by Petty Cash Taqueria
What’s the most common misconception about Mexican cuisine?
Some people believe that Mexican food is cheap and greasy — that it’s just rice, beans and tortillas. But Mexican cuisine started from before the Spaniards arrived, so there’s a lot of history and tradition — from the many uses of corn to different fish preparations. And sometimes it’s quite complex to try to source the ingredients. We want to bring fine dining to Petty Cash with dishes like our ceviche — to showcase that Mexican seafood can be delicious and high quality without being heavy or feeling like a burrito. We like to showcase the ingredients — and they can be light! Whatever the main ingredients are in the dish, we try to put an accent on that, to showcase that. People get surprised.
What dish are you most proud of?
The Hamachi Ceviche. We use sushi-grade fish. Other restaurants might use tilapia or other inexpensive fish but we get sushi-grade hamachi, and we play around with the ingredients — avocado dressing, lime, tomatillo and cilantro — in a unique presentation and different cooking method to get fantastic flavors.
Hamachi Ceviche. Photo provided by Petty Cash Taqueria
It tastes citrusy and acidic but also creamy like butter. Like butter with avocado.