Mezcal's Roberto Diaz on the best carnitas in the world, his love for lard and huitlacoche
This is part one of Lori Midson's Q&A with Roberto Diaz, the executive chef of Mezcal. Part two of that interview will run tomorrow.
To celebrate Mexican Independence Day last week, Roberto Diaz shimmied to the upbeat tempos of a roving mariachi band while feeding oyster shooters and al pastor tacos to a packed house at Mezcal, the rollicking Mexican cantina whose kitchen he's commanded for the past nine months after taking the reins from Sean Yontz, now exec chef/co-owner of El Diablo. "Feeding people is my passion," says Diaz, who was born in Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico. And cooking is what fuels him.
"I was raised on a farm, with horses, chickens, pigs and cows -- everything that you can find on a farm -- and I grew up in a family that cooked all the time. My mom and aunt did all the cooking, and it was always something that I wanted to be involved in," explains Diaz, who's also a whiz with numbers, a leather maker -- if you're in the market for a saddle, he's your guy -- and a formidable bull roper.
While studying accounting in Mexico, Diaz would spend his vacations here in Denver, where his sister lived, working in various kitchens, including the now defunct Mel's Bar and Grill; the former Brasserie Z, where he did time with Kevin Taylor; and Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, where he was sous chef for two years. "The executive chef was constantly mad, so I eventually left," says Diaz. He landed at Tamayo as a line cook, working for Yontz, and then worked for Yontz again at Vega (also gone), before Yontz, who was opening Mezcal, offered him the opportunity to be the head chef there. And when Yontz moved on, Diaz stayed at Mezcal. "Things have changed a lot for the better over the last year, including the fact that I finally have a walk-in, which has made life a lot easier," he says, "I love having my own kitchen, playing with flavors, using fresh ingredients and creating new recipes, a lot of which are family recipes. I want people to come here and have an authentic Mexican food experience, and I think we've been able to create that."
In the following interview, Diaz, who's in the throes of creating a new menu that will include, among other things, several dishes incorporating Mexican chocolate, talks about his role in the kitchen, a farm in Brighton that's turning out awesome carnitas, and why lard is lord.