Chef Dionicio Jimenez is committed to preserving traditional Mexican cuisine. (Photo/Courtesy Starr Restaurants)

Chef Spotlight: Dionicio Jimenez reveals the secret to making perfect tacos

Vitals: Dionicio Jiminez grew up on a farm in Puebla, Mexico in a tight-knit family of great cooks who inspired him to pursue a culinary career that years later, distinguished the 37-year-old as one of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s most prominent chefs. At “El Rey,” Jiminez has developed a menu that focuses on the traditional Mexican ingredients and hearty flavors he grew up with. “I try to cook like my mom did,” says Jiminez, who features complex, traditional dishes like chile en nogada and piquant mole negro alongside simple street fare like gorditas with cochinita pibil and boiled egg on his menu. “Mothers like her represent the heart and soul of Mexican cooking.”

Experience: Jiminez worked his way up from dishwasher to sous chef at La Vitrola in Mexico City and after joining his brother in Philadelphia, worked as a line cook at restaurants including Chin Chin and Vetri. With a substantial background in both Mexican and Italian culinary styles, Jiminez was offered the position of executive chef at Mexican hotspot Xochitl and just three years later, partnered with award-winning restaurateur Stephen Starr to open El Rey, which local critics have praised as “outstanding “ with “waves of flavor.”

On preserving Mexican culinary traditions: “It’s very important to me to educate people about Mexican food. I can’t say it enough: Mexican food is much, much more than beans and burritos. The food of rural Mexico is made by ordinary people with love, time and wonderful ingredients and that’s something I try to honor with my cooking. Tortillas and salsas from scratch, meat roasted the way my dad did – this is the food that I try to recreate at my restaurant and it’s a privilege for me cook that way.

On the first dish he ever made: “I think the first dish I ever made were tacos, actually. My mom allowed me to make my own food if I wanted to, and I think I was around 7 years old when I started cooking. I would go into the backyard garden and pick zucchini blossoms, baby zucchini and nopales and grill them. I would eat those roasted vegetables in one of my mom’s homemade tortillas with a little lime juice, and to this day, I think those simple tacos are the best. Grilled vegetables, good tortillas and lots of lime juice – there’s nothing better than that.”

On the best advice he’s ever received: “’Cook with love and everything will taste great.’ And it’s true – when you take the time to appreciate the product and the diner, you’ll create something delicious, well-seasoned and flavored with lots of love.”

5 ingredients he can’t cook without: “Corn masa, onion, garlic, ripe tomatoes and peppers. Using those ingredients you can make anything: sauces, salsa, soup, enchiladas, tacos and chilaquiles. You’ll need protein of course, but with those five ingredients you hold the secret to making delicious food. Sometimes people think that making good food is complicated, but all you need is a few great, fresh ingredients.”

On making food for the kids: “My two children and I have a great tradition of making pasta from scratch every Sunday. We make ravioli, gnocchi and spaghetti with different sauces; sometimes Bolognese or something with vegetables. Sometimes we make homemade pizza, but they love my pasta – it’s their favorite!”

His favorite kitchen utensil: “I couldn’t live without a blender in the kitchen. That goes for most utensils, but the blender is essential for making salsas and sauces. It’s my secret weapon.”

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