6 Questions with Jose Salazar

What brought you to the culinary world?

I started out as a bartender and server, right out of high school. It made sense for my lifestyle… Which was not being up early in the morning. It was fun. It was interactive. I didn’t think of it as a career at the time, but it paid pretty well, was flexible, and, again, it was fun. By my second year, I started gravitating towards the kitchen. I actually got in trouble for spending too much time there, picking the brains of the chefs and asking, “Can I roll out the bread!?” My manager would say, “No, you’re supposed to be polishing glassware, not rolling bread, you’re a server.” Eventually, I decided, this is what I want to do. I went to culinary school and have been cooking for the last 25 years. 

Tell us about the food scene in Cincinnati?

Being in the Midwest, you might think that it’s all meat and potatoes, but it’s not. In our city, Cincinnati, people were really looking for something different. They don’t just want meat and potatoes. They want to be stimulated, they want to be taught. What happens so much in this country in general, not just in the Midwest, is that people water down “ethnic cuisines” and make everything homogenous and simple. That’s what, I think, for a long time people thought was necessary. But when you don’t do that, when you stop watering it down, you realize that people are interested in the true flavors and essence of those dishes. They get really excited about it.

What does travel mean to you?

I love it. I love traveling just as much as I love cooking. I love to understand where food comes from, and the stories behind the cultures and the people who produce those dishes. I love getting to experience the smells, the feeling, the air, everything It’s all-encompassing, I think. There’s nothing like being in a new place. And I always find it, no matter how many times I travel, really surreal that you can be in your living room in Cincinnati, Ohio, and then, all of a sudden, you’re in this crazy, outlandish environment somewhere. I could be in a rainforest in Brazil in a matter of hours. That’s inexplicable. It’s a surreal experience. Every time I travel, I feel the same way. 

What excites you most about Mexico City?

Probably the diversity in Mexico City’s food scene. Mexico City’s got from Enrique Calavera and some of the other really, really great, amazing chefs that are leaders in world-class cuisine, to the humble taco that costs maybe $2. But, it can be just as good, if not better, than some of the bites you get in a Michelin-star restaurant. The expression and the craft that goes into the simple tortilla isn’t actually that simple. There are centuries of tradition that went into making that tortilla so perfect. A lot of people take that for granted. Way way more that goes into that tortilla than they could have ever imagined. 

How has Mexican cuisine influenced your culinary career?

It has a lot of influence. Mexican ingredients are woven into all our cooking at the restaurant. Right before I opened my restaurant Mita’s, which is  Latin Spanish fusion, I traveled to Mexico City. It was my seventh or eighth time in the country and was something of an R&D trip. To this day, we still serve some of the dishes inspired by that trip, one of them being the Pozole Verde. Traditionally, it’s made with chicken. We took it a different route and added seafood to it, so it’s a modern twist on that traditional dish. 

What specific ingredients are you looking forward to?

Masa again, I think you can not talk about Mexican cuisine without talking about Masa. Anywhere near the coast of Mexico, the seafood. And specific to Mexico City, it’s the indigenous ingredients. Thinking back to the Aztec and Maya civilizations, and some of the ingredients that they used and are still used today. I’m looking forward to ingredients like corn and chilies.