2016 San Francisco Rising Star Chef Val Cantu of Californios

2016 San Francisco Rising Star Chef Val Cantu of Californios
May 2016

Raised deep in the heart of Texas, Val Cantu grew up hunting with his brother and father, who owned a Mexican restaurant that was like a second home to Cantu. Always intrigued by cooking but ambivalent about career options, Cantu studied business and English literature at the University of Texas at Austin, graduating in 2006. By 2009, Cantu’s feelings about his future had crystallized, and not wanting to waste any time, he got his first professional gig at Uchi under Rising Star alums Tyson Cole, Philip Speer, and Paul Qui.     

Having fallen in love with fine dining, Cantu went on to stage at Benu and Saison in San Francisco, moving there permanently to work at Sons & Daughters. There, Cantu began thinking about fine dining as it pertained to Mexican food. He wondered why no one was doing anything fun and playful in that vain. With the seeds for Californios planted in his imagination, Cantu took off for Mexico City to stage at Enrique Olvera’s Pujol. 

Bolstered by the warmth and generosity of the cooks there, and by his own deep dive into the history of Mexican cuisine, Cantu returned to San Francisco, hosting several pop-ups as he carved out his vision. Californios opened in January 2015. At 16 courses, it’s (likely) the only Mexican tasting menu in the country, a tour-de-force steeped in tradition, progress, and the true romance of fine dining. Cantu earned a Michelin star and was named one of Eater’s Best New Restaurants in America the same year.

Interview with San Francisco Rising Star Val Cantu of Californios

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start? 
Val Cantu:
I grew up in my fathers Mexican restaurant. I didnt always think I was going to cook. I studied business and English in college. I didnt know what I wanted dot do. Cooking seemed intriguing. I knew I was too old to mess around, so I only wanted to work in the best kitchens. I got a job at Uchi in Austin with Tyson Cole and Philp Speer, and fell in love with fine dining. 

SK: How did you make it to San Francisco?
I staged at Benu and Saison and then moved here to work at Sons and Daughters with Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara. 

SK: You staged at Pujol before opening Californios. How was that experience?
 I left Sons and Daughters and felt I had to stage at Pujol to forfill my higher education. I thought, "What's the best Mexican restaurant in the world doing?" The cooks were so warm and generous and showed me so many things and taught me so much. I also staged at Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley.  

SK: How long have you been in San Francisco?
I've been in San Francisco for 5 years now. The community here is so great, so welcoming and helpful. 

SK: What is the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
Day to day surprises like leaks etc. You have to have the right attitude to find a solution. There's also a huge shortage of cooks. I've been really lucky with everyone here in my kitchen, they have incredible backgrounds and are excited about the food we're making. 

SK: What's your five year plan?
I definitely want to still be cooking, but I want to have a second, bigger, more casual location, and maybe make the number of seasts here even smaller. I want to self publish a book that chronicles the first year [of my restaurant] and work on a zine. I want to focus on the positive things in cooking and turn them into fun projects. 

SK: What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would tell myself to enjoy the simplicity of cooking more. Relish the time when you are deep in the weeds, when there seems to be no escape, and somehow you climb your way out. Those nights when your only concern is making it to the end, and pat yourself on the back when you do.

SK: Tell us more about your Tres Frijoles dish?
Tres Frijoles represents Mexican cuisine in a new way while still valuing tradition. We wanted to create the most elegant and delicious bean dish we could. We ask, "How can we make something the most delicious?" And then we reverse engineer the textures and presentation to match that intention. Most dishes are on the menu for about a month, at which point we try and create a dish that is better than the previous. Tres Frijoles quickly became a staple because we haven’t been able to think of anything more delicious. In a lot of ways, it’s our "Oysters and Pearls." It’s kind of strange to become known for a very simple dish of beans, but it has become a perfect representation of what we do. My philosophy: there shouldn’t be any dish you wouldn’t eat a bowl of.