Vitals: Dudley Nieto grew up in Puebla, Mexico. His father – who grew up in Spain – was a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen, which provided Nieto a “strong sense of pride, knowing men could be great cooks.” At 21 years old, Nieto intended to study medicine but decided to pursue culinary school instead. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, Nieto brought his Mexican palate and classic French technique to kitchens in the Chicago area. He’s opened countless restaurants, from Adobo Grill and Chapuline in Chicago to Bar Taco, Rosa Mexicano-Lincoln Center and Dos Caminos Park Avenue in New York City, finally returning home to the Midwest last year where under his guidance, new eatery Mezcalina has recently earned the distinction of being named one of 23 “Authentic Mexican Restaurants” by the Mexican government.
Experience: Nieto has had a large hand in making refined Mexican food more available to dinners than ever before, something he could have never imagined as a 14-year-old washing dishes back in Mexico. Recently honored for his contributions to the “gastronomic Mexican community,” Nieto has worked at dozens of restaurants across the country and opened many restaurants. He’s staying quiet about his newest project opening March in Chicago, but he promises that “it’s going to be absolutely spectacular.”
On Mezcalina being recognized for authenticity by Mexico: “It was an emotional moment, especially because I was given the news on my birthday. To be recognized by my country and by my peers, evokes every reason why I am a chef. Nothing could make me happier than knowing I am part of an industry that dignifies Mexican cuisine, art and culture.”
On Mexican food, made better: “Mexican food hasn’t become popular by accident. It’s all about giving diners great food with excellent flavors. It’s a cuisine that’s quickly becoming more mainstream, but we can continue to make it grow by staying true to our roots. For the foodies that have had street tacos in Mexico, I want to deliver a taco that’s even better. For first-time diners, I want to provide an experience they’ll never forget. That’s my challenge: to put authentic yet contemporary food at the table.”
On his earliest food memory: “The very first thing I remember seeing my grandmother make was mole from scratch. She would make it with my aunts, and what I remember most was how long it would take – it’s not an easy thing to make. She toasted the cocoa beans, ground them and added each ingredient, one at a time. I saw the whole process take place in front of my eyes and knowing that made me appreciate the finished dish. But more than anything, I saw the love of my passion there on the plate. I saw their hearts and why is it was important to make those meals right. That’s the heritage I come from, and I couldn’t be prouder if it.”
On the best advice he’s ever received: “Follow your heart and keeping looking forward so that when you’re working, you feel like you’re having the best time of your life.’ My friend, mentor and fellow chef Ben Moy told me that years ago. If you follow that advice, your day will be filled with good experiences and challenges simply by following your heart.
The heritage ingredients that he’s excited about: “Every day brings something new for Mexican cuisine in America. Not only is it easier to introduce diners to more authentic cuisine because of the popularity and knowledge of our food in mainstream culture, but more and more traditional ingredients are coming to the market every day. Epazote (ed note: a fragrant herb, which with cilantro and Mexican oregano are the most frequently used herbs in Mexican cooking), cactus paddles and prickly pear are all examples of ingredients you could never find or that were once too exotic to use. But that’s changing every day and that’s what makes being a chef right now so exciting.”
On crave-worthy comfort food: “Without a doubt, that’s my grandmother’s huaxmole. It’s made with a type of wild pea pod we had in Puebla called huaxin, which together with the chiles and lamb broth makes a dish that’s out of this world. You add lamb chunks to the mole, as well as little masa balls we call chochoyotes. We eat it with tortillas and it’s just incredible. When I taste it, I’m reminded of eating it for the first time; of my family; and of the indigenous foods of Mexico that are so unique.”