Our Interview with Meso Maya's Nico Sanchez, Part 1: Honing His Craft in Small-Town Mexico

When Mike Kearns, owner of El Fenix, set about opening an authentic, regional Mexican food restaurant in Dallas, he tapped Nico Sanchez, who'd spent his youth working and traveling throughout Mexico and learning about regional foods. The resulting restaurant, Meso Maya, has been open for just over a month but is getting pretty positive buzz by those who have stopped in.

In part of our ongoing interview series with local chefs, Thee-Course Meal, we talked to Sanchez about his path to the corner of Preston and Forest. Tomorrow, look for more from Sanchez, including his take on Dallas' food scene.

What do you remember about the food you ate as a child? I grew up in a small town in Mexico called Guanajuato. There were no restaurants in town and so my mom cooked all the time from basic ingredients like corn and beans. That's all we had.

When did you first learn to cook? My father died when I was very young, so when I was 11 I had to get a job to help my family. I worked at a local bakery where we made everything from scratch. We used a huge wood-burning brick stove that could bake 14 loaves at a time. It was very unique and, now that I think about it, cooking different breads and pastries in that oven was really an art. Then the owner left for America and I ran it myself for a while. But, when I was 14 I had to go to Mexico City for a better job.

When you moved to Mexico City, how did your love for food grow? At first I got another job at a bakery, and then with a company where I made deliveries all over the country, so I got to see all of the regional foods. For me, that was really exciting. I started noticing all the diversity in the foods. Whatever town we were in we'd pull to the side of the road and try whatever they had.

When did you come to Dallas? All of my family was here in the states by the time I was 19, so I came to visit -- it was too cold, though, and I didn't like it. But, my family wanted me to stay and then I saw an old friend of mine from back home and he got me a job at Sambuca in Deep Ellum washing dishes. That was 15 years ago.

How did your job progress into becoming a chef? Well, I didn't speak English, but I learned and after a few months I started talking to the chef some. I worked a lot and I worked hard. Then I got on with the Consilient restaurants (Hibiscus, The Porch) and eventually I became the chef at Cuba Libre.

And now you're the chef at a new restaurant, Meso Maya, with a menu you've created. Not bad, huh? Well, I always worked really hard. And everything happens for a reason. I learned so much about the food in Mexico all those years ago. I had no idea it would have such an impact on my career now.

What place or person helped you the most in your career? Well, Consilient gave me a lot of opportunity, but I also worked really hard for them. So, it worked both ways. But, I would say Nick Badovinus at Neighborhood Services was the one who taught me the most.

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