Chef Anastacia Quinones Is Bringing Modern Mexican Cuisine and a lot of Spunk to Kitchen LTO

Anastacia Quinones, culinary badass.
Anastacia Quinones, culinary badass.
courtesy Kitchen LTO

Even though Dallas diners have arguably fickle taste, the chefs endure. Long after a former hot spot has closed its doors, the chefs who packed the place for however short a time inevitably move on to better jobs. Some eventually open their own restaurants. But for Anastacia Quinones, now cooking up modern Mexican cuisine at the fifth iteration of Kitchen LTO, the road to restaurant nirvana has been a little more winding.

Just a few years ago, Quinones left a job at Abraham Salum’s Komali to teach culinary arts at a high school. Now, she’s back in the kitchen and plans to stay there. We sat down with Quinones to talk about simultaneously teaching high schoolers and opening a restaurant, her interpretation of modern Mexican cuisine and what the future looks like for this creative and promising chef.

You’re a chef’s chef, it seems, but for diners, you’re mostly an an unknown quantity. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s probably because I’ve been out of the scene for a couple of years. I was a culinary arts instructor at Molina High School, and that gave me some time to spend with my family. I still stayed in the food scene by doing events, and I’m friends with a lot of those guys.

What made you decide that teaching culinary arts was right for you?

It does for those kids what music did for me when I was a kid. It gives you a sort of discipline, you have to have that when you’re working in a kitchen. You have to listen to your chef, and you have to focus on the task at hand. I enjoyed teaching that. Not all of the kids were very disciplined, and I didn’t exactly get all the kids who wanted to be in my class. There were a few that acted out, but food brings people together. When the end result is that you get to eat your creation, everyone can get excited about that.

I also got to introduce my students to a lot of things that they’d never had before. Something as simple as a cantaloupe — I knew kids that had never heard of cantaloupe before. They don’t know the difference between a cantaloupe and a honeydew. To see that light bulb go off in their heads was really, really awesome. It was very fulfilling for me, even though I wasn’t in the kitchen environment that I was used to.

Did you find it difficult to transition back into the restaurant business after taking a couple of years off?

Nope, not at all. I missed it, and I didn’t know how much I missed it until I got to Kitchen LTO and started working. When you’re creative and you’re not flexing that creative muscle, you fall into a rut. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a depression, but that part of you that is creative just kind of falls asleep. Then, when you start doing what you’re passionate about, it wakes back up again. It’s exciting and exhilarating and I missed it, absolutely.

What was the gap between your last month of teaching and starting at LTO?

There wasn’t any gap. The last week of school, I had mostly seniors, and they let out a little earlier than the rest of the kids. But I was still at school, doing paperwork and grading and still handling all those responsibilities. Then, at night, I would come here and work on the food. I didn’t do both for very long, but it was still stressful.

When you were writing the menu for Kitchen LTO, what flavors or cuisines were most inspirational?

I’ve learned a lot about modern Mexican cuisine over the past four or five years, and I wanted to showcase that. When I first started in restaurants, I was working at Alma and I didn’t know anything about that kind of food at all. I had the opportunity to learn from really amazing chefs, and then I moved to Komali and got an entirely different experience from cooking with Abraham [Salum]. He was raised in Mexico City and has this whole mashup of cultures and cities and experiences in his food, and I learned a lot from him. I sort of took what I learned at both of those concepts and combined them. Alma was really hearty and rustic, while Komali was a little more contemporary and sophisticated. I wanted to blend those two together, and that inspired my menu.

What does “modern Mexican cuisine” mean for you?

It means taking simple and traditional Mexican ingredients, like a mole, for example. A lot of times, people make mole with boiled or roasted chicken and then slather the sauce over the chicken. When I was growing up, I hated mole, and I would always just take a piece of chicken and then dip it into the mole sauce just to get a little taste, instead of having a big puddle of it on my plate. I modernized that recipe and used a crispy chicken thigh instead of something bland, and then added just a little bit of sauce to it. I understand that mole can be overwhelming and is a new experience for some people, so I do my take on it and make it more approachable.

Are there other cuisines that influence your Mexican cooking?

Of course. I was classically trained in French methods, so I use those techniques to fine-tune my Mexican food.

Did you grow up cooking?

My mom was a caterer and live-in chef in Highland Park in the 1970s, so when Tristan Simon approached me to open Alma, he told me that he was going to be doing Mexican food, and I said, “That’s great, I don’t know anything about that.” I didn’t grow up eating traditional Mexican food the way that people think of it. My mom was making chicken tetrazzini and lasagna and eggplant Parmesan and chicken a la king because that’s what people ate in the '70s and '80s.

When I started making Mexican dishes, I would get criticized because they weren’t Mexican enough. And I would think, “Well, that’s what my Mexican mother made me!” That’s what I knew. My mom would host parties and cater events and I was always tagging along. It was kind of a drag. No 15- or 16-year-old wants to be making tortillas with their mom at a party. It wasn’t until I saw people thanking her and genuinely satisfied and happy, I understood why she did it. She was fulfilled, and that made sense to me.

You mentioned earlier that you studied music. How did you transition into the kitchen?

I played classical violin for over 10 years. I started at Bonham Elementary on Henderson Avenue, and back then, you chose either a music class or a gym class, and I hate to sweat. So I chose music. I snuck into the orchestra room and picked up a violin, and the instructor sort of caught me and told me that I wasn’t supposed to be in there, but that if I wanted to, he could talk to my parents about me joining the orchestra. I ended up playing for the Young Performers Orchestra, the Dallas String Ensemble and other orchestras in Dallas, and it was a great experience.

Growing up in East Dallas, anything could have happened. I could’ve hooked up with the wrong people or ended up just doing bad things. My parents wanted to make sure that I was occupied, that I was studying and playing music and doing what I was supposed to do. It gave me a discipline that other kids my age just didn’t have.

Do you miss playing the violin? Do you ever pick up and play?

I saw it more as a punishment at the time. Although I remember the tunes and could probably pick up and play a couple of things, cooking filled that creative niche for me. I decided in my 20s that this was what I wanted to do. No one tells you that once high school is over, you have to figure it out. I hadn’t figured it out, so I did everything. I enlisted in the Air Force, went to community college and worked a bunch of crazy jobs. Then I realized that I was already good at cooking, that I already knew what I was doing, and I started working in a restaurant as a dishwasher.

I loved it. It was fun. They would call me onto the line when they needed help, and it was fun. My mom told me that if this was something that I really wanted to do, she didn’t care if I was making tacos and enchiladas, I needed to make the best tacos and enchiladas, and I needed to go to school.

Because Kitchen LTO is such a short-term kind of assignment, you have to already be thinking about the future. Are you heading back to the classroom?

I haven’t really told anyone yet, but I resigned from Molina ISD. I think the experience at Kitchen LTO has really opened my eyes. I miss the kitchen, and this is all I know. I enjoy it, I’m kind of good at it, and I want to continue to grow and learn. I’m thinking of opening my own space next year, so we’ll see how that goes. 


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