Jorge Guzman of Solera: Chef Chat, Part 1
At the beginning of the new year, Solera was going through some major changes. New owners and a new chef had many people holding their breath and wondering if it wasn't, perhaps, the end of an era. The initial cosmetic changes--new awnings, a revamped dining area--seemed to all be heading in the right direction. Then there was the food. In the pass appeared a confident young man, with a sleek, shaved head and a warm smile: Enter Jorge Guzman.
The Mexican-born, Midwestern-raised Guzman has an infectious enthusiasm for food. We sat down with Guzman to discuss his rise to the head of the kitchen, his love of his native cuisine, and why Minneapolis is a good town for transplants.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Mexico, in Merida. I moved to the U.S. when I was about 5 1/2 or 6 years old. We moved to St. Louis, and I stayed there until I was 18.
Was that when you went to Drake?
Yes, I went to Drake on a football scholarship and originally started out studying business. Then I switched to journalism because it wasn't as dry; more creative.
How did you make the switch from journalism to culinary school?
I already knew by then that I wanted to be a chef. I'd been cooking for years.
What was your first job in the industry?
I'd started at a little French bistro. That was my first cooking job. I did anything: prep, bus tables... It was like, "Do you speak French? Have you ever worked in a French bistro before?" Uh, no. I'm 17. They even had me wait tables two times. That was terrifying because I knew I didn't know what I was doing.
Then I moved on to another place and cooked there for four years. It was strictly turn and burn. Work the saute station, "No, we're not going to show you how to do it, just do it and do it fast."
How did you end up studying at the Culinary Institute of America?
That was actually my mom's idea. I had wanted to go to Johnson and Wales. I applied to both and ended up choosing the CIA.
I did my externship at Magnolia's in South Carolina. I went in the spring and stayed through the summer. It was a really cool feeling to be doing what I knew I wanted to be doing. Charleston is all either food or shipping. I was really immersed in it--all great chefs, all great restaurants.
How did you end up in Minnesota?
My fiancee was here. We met at Drake. She works for Target Corp.
Ah, ha--it's always about love.
I know! Everyone seems to say that, "Well, my wife is from..." (laughs.) It's a good transplant city.
So, I came here and worked at Redstone in Eden Prairie. It wasn't the food I necessarily wanted to be cooking, but it was a place to learn great systems that I still use to this day.
After that I did take a brief break and headed out to Colorado, where I didn't do shit.
Eventually, I got bored and applied for a place in Chicago. Dunlay's on Clark and a wine bar called DOC, they both shared the same kitchen. It's still really young in my culinary career. That kitchen kicked my ass. There I learned how to manage a staff, not let them manage me--because when I started there, they were managing me, and that didn't work.
I did come back to Minnesota and just started trolling Craigslist. I kept seeing this opening at Tejas. That's a cuisine that's very near to my heart. That's what I grew up eating.
Tell me about the food in Merida.
There are a lot of Lebanese and Caribbean influences in the food. Frijol con puerco [beans and pork], salbutes--a tortilla stuffed with black beans, chicken, cheese, recados--toasted spices blended like a Caribbean Jerk seasoning, mixed together in a mortar and pestle, the base of all medidas. Anchiote. Al pastor. I've had some pretty good al pastor here, but the ones in the Yucatan are just ... great.
Was Tejas a good fit?
A great experience. I was 27, and they hired me as the executive chef. They really allowed me to go with it and let me run the kitchen. I'd interviewed with Mark, who's a chef. It had to be hard to let someone do food in your kitchen.
They also let me order food through the farmer's markets, which is how I met Kris Hase, who introduced me to Scott Pampuch.
I left Tejas to work for the University of Minnesota for a while, which wasn't a creative job, but I did get to help open the TCF stadium, which was pretty cool.
I left there to spend a little time at Corner Table. I was there for about a year. Listening to Scott talk the local talk, it did have an effect on me.
I left Corner Table to open up my own place.
More tomorrow on what happened with this endeavor and how he found his way to Solera.