Arnold Rubio, exec chef of Tamayo, on grasshoppers, snakes and chiles
This is part one of my interview with Arnold Rubio, exec chef of Tamayo; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Arnold Rubio's smile is infectious, and it's all because of Richard Sandoval, the New York-based chef and restaurateur who owns Tamayo (and numerous other restaurants in Colorado and around the world), the modern Mexican restaurant in Larimer Square where Rubio has wielded knives for the past ten years. "Richard inspires me," says Rubio. "If you want to work -- it doesn't matter who you are or where you're from -- and there's an opportunity available, Richard will give you a job."
Born in San Miguel, Rubio lost his father at a young age, and El Salvador wasn't the kind of country that was particularly desirable for a single mother raising a family. "The Salvadoran Civil War was going on, and you never knew what kind of violence was going to erupt next," he recalls, "so my mom moved us to Mexico after my father died, with the eventual goal of moving to the United States for a better life." In Mexico, Rubio spent the majority of his time on his grandfather's more tranquil farm, which is where he learned how to cook. "My grandfather grew tons of vegetables, plus we had some chickens and cows, and my mom and grandmother were always making fresh tortillas -- I loved playing with the masa -- and cheeses, like queso fresco from the cow's milk," he remembers.
Rubio and his family eventually made it across the border to Houston, where he had aunts and uncles, along with a brother who was working as a line cook at a Mexican restaurant. "He got me a job as a busboy, and that's when I first became really interested in playing with food," says Rubio, who adds that he was living with friends who were "always cooking the most amazing soups, tacos, enchiladas and Mexican sandwiches."
After two years as a dish monkey, Rubio landed a gig on the line at Pappasito's Cantina, part of the restaurant group that also owns Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen and dozens of other joints. After "learning all the basic fundamentals of cooking," he became the chief chile head behind the chain's salsas and soups. "It was a great eight years, and I left with a really good grasp of techniques, flavors and the balance of flavors," says Rubio, who followed one of his chefs to Denver. Together they opened Señorita's Cantina in LoDo (the space now houses Venice), but when it closed after just a year, the chef for whom Rubio was working returned to Houston. Rubio, though, was happy to leave that city in the dust. "I wasn't really that enamored of Houston, but I loved the climate, the people and the cleanliness of Denver, so I wanted to stay and make another opportunity for myself," he explains.
Just as the Cantina closed, Tamayo was gearing up to open. "I wanted to cook at a Mexican restaurant and walked into Tamayo while they were building it," says Rubio, who dropped off an application. It took some perseverance on his part to bag a job: "They kept telling me to come back tomorrow...and then the next day...and the next day -- but I was finally hired as a line cook, working next to Sean Yontz," he says. Three months later, he was offered the junior sous-chef spot. When Yontz left, Rubio secured the sous-chef position, and then, when the executive chef moved to another Sandoval restaurant in Dubai, Rubio became Sandoval's right-hand man. "I have such an intense passion for cooking and Mexican cuisine, and working for Richard is one of the most amazing things I've ever done in my life," says Rubio, who in the following interview showers love on his wife's gorditas, hints that he may add grasshoppers to his menu, and warns that if you want to work in his kitchen, you'd better be a neat freak.