Los Chingones's Lou Ortiz on the python tacos that could soon slither on the menu
This is part one of my interview with Lou Ortiz, executive sous-chef at Los Chingones; part two of our chat will run on Thursday.
I come from a big, very Mexican family," declares Lou Ortiz, who grew up in Newark, the only son in a group of four kids whose mother specialized in Spanish-style cooking. "My mom never made a bad meal, and she never -- not once -- made a dry piece of chicken, and I've always admired that about her," says Ortiz, who's now cooking food reminiscent of his childhood at Los Chingones, where he's the executive sous-chef, working alongside chef-owner Troy Guard.
Still, while Ortiz appreciated his mother's meals, he considered the kitchen little more than a recreational playground: Architecture was his primary passion. "I always wanted to be an architect, because it's the kind of job where you can see the whole vision before it's even completed, and I always thought that was really cool," he says.
But Ortiz -- like a lot of chefs who turn to a cooking career once they've handled a knife -- soon changed direction. For his first job, he found himself in the kitchen of a Red Robin, and while he started at the low end of the totem pole -- as a busser -- by the time he left, he was a server trainer for the front-of-the-house staff, not to mention more than adept at flipping burgers. "I realized that I had a real affinity for service and cooking, and that this was the life I wanted to pursue," he says.
But first he focused on service: in the U.S. Marine Corps. "I remember asking the recruiter at my high school, who was also my assistant lacrosse coach, why he joined the Marines, and he said that he joined because he saw people who had more heart than he did turn it down, and that if he had what it took, that he should join because others won't," he recalls. Those words resonated with Ortiz, who soon learned that only two of the students in his high-school graduation class had signed up for the Marines. "That was enough for me to join," he recalls. "I felt an obligation to offer my services in the military and put my life on the line; I wanted to fight for something I believed in."
Between 2005 and 2008, he was deployed, off and on, to Afghanistan and Iraq, spending his downtime at the Newark base doing what he calls "busy work" -- and planning his next meal. "We all called it 'chow-to-chow-Sunday-to-Sunday,' explains Ortiz, noting that the phrase was indicative of "waiting for the next break so we could eat again." And he realized that food was more than just belly filler. "Food was camaraderie and an opportunity to be social and hospitable, and I really fell in love with the emotional significance that food held for me, and I knew I wanted to cultivate memories for other people," says Ortiz.
Once he'd fulfilled his commitment to serving America, he earned a degree in hotel, restaurant and institutional management at the University of Delaware, spending hundreds of hours in a campus-based pizzeria as part of his degree requirements. He advanced up the ladder quickly, starting as a general manager and then nabbing a promotion as the R&D director of the pizzeria's collection of stores, which stretched to Pennsylvania. But after several years "coming up with new pizzas and salads," he says, he noticed that he had the highest level of culinary expertise of anyone in the company, a lightbulb moment that encouraged him to "get out there and learn more than I knew."