Chef Daniel Marquez (l) is pictured alongside a plate of fish tacos, served at his restaurant Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila in Albuquerque, NM. (Photos/Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila)

Chef Spotlight: Chef Daniel Marquez on making tacos turn heads

Vitals: Chef Daniel Marquez was born in Mexico City and immigrated to California at the age of 21. As a child, Marquez says he was “extremely picky,” but the flavors, smells and techniques of his upbringing eventually inspired him to pursue a culinary career. Since those early years when he refused to eat anything but enchiladas, Marquez – now 44 – has flourished to become one of the nation’s leading chefs specializing in both Mexican and Southwestern cuisines.

Experience: Marquez worked his way up from the line at various seafood restaurants in San Diego, California and in 1993, helped open Mark Miller’s Coyote Café at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Marquez later joined premiere Southwestern cuisine chef Stephan Pyles at his restaurant Taqueria Cañonita at The Venetian Hotel. He worked there for several years as Executive Chef before opening Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila in Albuquerque, New Mexico as its chef in January 2012. Marquez – who holds culinary degrees from the College of Southern Nevada and the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY – soon earned national attention for his creative interpretation of classic Mexican meals. This year, Zacatecas was a James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for “Best New Restaurant”

On being part of Las Vegas’ reinvention as a culinary destination: “Back in 1993, I helped open Coyote Café under Mark Miller at the MGM Grand. That was the first mega resort in the world and the first time in one building you had so much culinary talent. Charlie Trotter, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck all had restaurants there and that began to change Las Vegas. It became a place that people traveled not just for gambling, but for the dining experience. There was so much variety under one roof and my time there continues to inspire me.”

Cornmeal crusted poblano chile stuffed with dried apricots, cranberries, walnuts, fresh herbs, monterey, asaderdo & goat cheese, served with cilantro rice & spinach salad.

Cornmeal crusted poblano chile stuffed with dried apricots, cranberries, walnuts, fresh herbs, monterey, asaderdo & goat cheese, served with cilantro rice & spinach salad. (Photo/Courtesy Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila)

On the dish that changed his life forever: “I used to be an extremely picky eater as a kid, but one thing I always loved were cheese enchiladas. It’s always been my comfort food. But I realize now that people aren’t familiar with all the variations of enchiladas, so I’m working on a cookbook of enchilada recipes from all across the Southwest and Latin America.”

On reinventing the simple taco – and turning heads: “Tacos are a great introduction to Mexican food for diners across all backgrounds. You think it’s simple, but tacos are a great way to build layers and layers of flavor. I love taking classic combinations and elevating them, with a twist, whether it be through a technique or change in ingredients. It’s exciting, and always challenging to create food that will leave people asking for more but that are true to where I come from.”

Proudest moment: “It was a huge risk for me to move to New Mexico and open Zacatecas – but to receive a James Beard Foundation nomination for Best New Restaurant was the ultimate reward. It was an acknowledgement that our ideas about food hold value and it meant the world to me.”

What he does on his time off: “I love exploring restaurants in town with my kids. They are very adventurous eaters and they inspire me with their approach to food. We’ll often try 8 or 9 dishes at one meal – it’s so much fun.”

On his not-so-secret guilty pleasure: “Foie gras. Back when I was a picky teenager, I wouldn’t have touched liver. I used to have nightmares about it! But I remember the first time I had foie gras, back in California – I was around 25. It had such a nice, buttery sweet taste and to this day, it’s my favorite dish. It’s the first thing I order wherever I go.”

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