Louis Maldonado’s cooking career didn’t begin as conventionally as others’. Growing up in Northern California, Maldonado was surrounded by his family’s karate business and was on the path to inherit this lifestyle. But in 2001, seeking a change, Maldonado enrolled in the California Culinary Academy.
After graduating, Maldonado worked at One Market under Chef Adrian Hoffman, where he cemented fundamental cooking skills. In 2004, Maldonado was part of the opening team at Cortez where he was mentored by chef-owners Quinn and Karen Hatfield. He was promoted to co-executive chef in 2006, and under his direction Cortez was awarded one Michelin star.
In 2008, Maldonado joined the team at The French Laundry where he worked under another one of his mentors, then Chef de Cuisine Corey Lee. After a very rewarding and humbling year with Lee, Maldonado assumed the executive chef position at Cafe Majestic in San Francisco, where he was awarded the Rising Star Chef award by the San Francisco Chronicle.
The closing of Cafe Majestic marked a time of contemplation for Maldonado while enjoying the company of his wife and newborn son. A few months later, Maldonado landed with acclaimed San Francisco Chef Mourad Lahlou at Aziza, where he found a partnership that is consistent with his culinary vision. Maldonado feels at home at Aziza, where he is able to push the limits of both Moroccan and San Franciscan cuisine.
Interview with Chef Louis Maldonado of Aziza – San Francisco, CA
Katherine Martinelli: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Louis Maldonado: I was trying to get out of my parents’ house. My dad wanted me to get my life together at the age of 17. I said to myself "You're going to wake up one day and be 40." My grandparents had met some people on a cruise who had said their grandson had gone to culinary school; it looked good. I went to CCA. It was closer and I wanted to live in the city. I knew during school it was what I wanted to do, but for the first few years after that, it was more monumental. This is what I want to do, the whole process.
KM: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
LM: If they have a source to get into a restaurant, then I would not recommend school. Coming out of school, what I was broken into was a total crash course in cooking. But it depends. You can skip culinary school, or if anything learn business, economics, and learn how to deal with money. [Cooking school] is not very important.
KM: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
LM: Work really hard. Just work. That's it. From my upbringing, I had a really strong work ethic and the more I learned, the more I wanted to spend my time at the restaurant, but it’s a big decision to make. You either want to have a life and sometimes cook, or you want to not have a life and all you want to do is cook. I just spent all my time at the restaurant, whether I needed to be there or not. Work hard, show commitment. It’s pretty easy from that point on. If you can figure out a simple equation and not talk a lot, you're good.
KM: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
LM: We do all the local events. Aziza is a prominent name in San Francisco. We have a lot of involvement in farmers’ markets. Any culinary event that will help out the restaurant industry in the city, Meals-on-Wheels, anything like that. Any event where we can go and push the envelope on the food and show people what we can do and the possibilities.
KM: Where have you worked?
LM: I was at Café Majestic for six months. It closed. Prior to that I was at the French Laundry for one year. And then I was at Cortez restaurant for four yearstwo years as the sous chef, and two years as the chef. I externed at One Market restaurant.
KM: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
LM: I'm still figuring that out. It’s a hard question. Now the biggest struggle I have is finding my identity in what I'm doing. In my head it works, but I want some sort of identity one day to what I do. There are times with food that I like to go really dramatic with an ingredient. Like a radish salad is a salad based on every radish I can find. When I do caviar and foie gras, I like to do a lot and put it out there. I haven’t set a limit with my style. I really like Japanese cuisine, but I can’t do that much here. To one day have my own restaurant—that would be an influence. Dining shouldn’t be stuffy. I like somewhat relaxed but really refined food. I'd like a really high-end restaurant, but to have that environment…I’m still struggling with the whole identity. It's not me to be in a stuffy environment wearing a suit.
KM: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your career?
LM: Sacrifice. Sacrifice and leaving my son in the mornings. He's 14 months old. We've gotten a lot closer, to where he freaks out a little bit when I leave, which is the hardest emotion to shut off. That's the hardest thing. But the sacrifice, just that balance. Me and my wife struggle with that balance between home and work. It's hard, it’s really hard.
KM: If you had one thing that you could do again or do over what would it be?
LM: I think the route I've chose is how it happened. I went from One Market, worked for [Quinn] Hatfield at Cortez. They promoted me to chef at 24. A little after that I actually wished I hadn’t taken the job. Now I'm proud of what I did as a 24-year-old with zero resume. A lot of learning came with my failure, about the management of a restaurant. At the end of the tenure we got a Michelin star and I quit the day it came out and went to the French Laundry. That was the greatest experience I ever had. I was really stuck with where I wanted to be and the French Laundry straightened my path and refined what I needed to know. Café Majestic—I got what I needed out of it. It sucks that it closed six months in.
KM: Where will you be in five years?
LM: Still evolving. To say I'll have a restaurant, that's a given, since the first day of cooking, that’s what I wanted. It’s just evolving. If there’s anything in confidence that I lack, it’s fearing that one day I'll stop going forward. Hopefully in five years I'll look back on the pictures from today and will have evolved further.