Ignacio Leon, exec chef of Paxia and Los Carboncitos, on the wild rabbit, helping the homeless and Mexican food
This is part one of my interview with Ignacio Leon, exec chef of Paxia and Los Carboncitos; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Ignacio Leon has more restaurants under his belt than years. The executive chef of Paxia (pronounced Pá-she-á) and the Los Carboncitos on Pecos at 38th Avenue is 38, and already he's worked in more than fifty kitchens.
He started young, helping his parents out at their restaurant in Mexico City, where he was born and raised. It was a fonda [inn], recalls Leon, with a tiny kitchen, family recipes and fresh produce plucked from the family farm. "I was around ten when I first stated working there, first as a dishwasher, then doing prep. And then I just started doing everything I could, because I wanted to make the family restaurant better and better," he says. After spending several years getting to know the business, he applied to culinary school at the Instituto Culinario of Mexico City, where he embarked on a three-year program. "I knew I wanted to cook for a living. That's all I've ever wanted to do," he says.
During the course of his studies, which involved five grueling days a week in the classroom, Leon competed in the World Food Culinary Championship, battling 100 chefs from more than twenty countries; he ended up as a top-twenty finalist. He also had the opportunity to go to Japan, where he spent six months cooking in a five-star restaurant. "I'm fascinated by Japanese food, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about it," he says, adding that even now, sushi is his favorite food. Japanese and Mexican cultures are similar, he notes, in that entire families often work together at a single restaurant: "Both of our cultures are all about family."
After graduating, he moved to Denver to be near the mountains -- and the snow -- and it didn't take him long to get back in the kitchen. Since moving to the Mile High City in 1997, Leon has cooked at the Denver ChopHouse; the Cheesecake Factory; Racines; Il Fornaio; Mao, the now-defunct Chinese restaurant in Cherry Creek; and P.F. Chang's China Bistro, where he was hired as part of the training team, traveling across the country to open eleven more outposts of the prolific chain, and several more restaurants.
But in 2004, he decided he wanted a restaurant of his own -- one that celebrated the cuisine of Mexico City. "When I opened our first location, Denver didn't have fresh street Mexican food -- at least not a lot of it -- and I also thought Denver needed a good restaurant that was open late. We wanted a place that cooks and servers could come to and eat once they finished their shifts," he explains. He unleashed the first Los Carboncitos at 720 Sheridan Boulevard, followed that with the West 38th Avenue location, and then added a third taqueria in Aurora. He shares ownership with his two brothers and one sister.