This week, Three-Course Meal catches up with Jose Luis Nieto, executive chef at The Lodge. Who are you? I'm 41 years old and was born in Jalisco, Mexico, the place where I believe the best Tequila in the whole world comes from. I grew up in a big family where there were nine children in total -- five sisters and four brothers. I'm the youngest of the family. Growing up, I just loved to play soccer and I actually really enjoyed school where I felt like I had my earliest training in doing my best. I remember loving both math and social studies.
Who was your first inspiration in the kitchen? That would have to be my mother. She loved to make typical Mexican dishes like various moles, especially her chicken mole. And I think she still cooks the best beef soup I've ever tasted. I remember being very happy to go to the store to get groceries for her. I also remember how much my Dad was involved with local agriculture, in the fields, cultivating all types of corn, peppers, beans, watermelons. I definitely remember my father going off into the nearby hills to bring back rabbits or quail, which my mother would then cook. Then she would turn around and take some venison and turn it into the best stew possible.
What was your first meal you made by yourself at home? I must have been 11 years old and it would have been a kind of scrambled eggs. I certainly remember being all by myself when I did it. I also remember some kind of bean dish that I made. It was nothing special but it was one of my first. What I absolutely do remember was the good feeling I had after making those dishes, that I could really survive on my own anywhere I could cook.
You left your hometown for the States at a pretty young age? I was only 17 years old when I left Jalisco and came straight to Dallas. I got here on, and I remember it precisely, March 19, 1989. The very next day I began to work at an Italian restaurant called Terilli's on Greenville Avenue. I started by washing dishes. I soon found a very nice chef there named Jill Alcott and she just gave me the nicest smile when I arrived at the restaurant. Pretty soon, she just told me to put on an apron and to start to learn the fundamentals of how her professional kitchen worked.
And what exactly were those basics? Everything from basic prep work like cleaning shrimp and cutting vegetables to starting to learn basic recipes. I learned how to make, from scratch, all those Terilli's sauces such as red sauce, or alfredo sauce. I was only working there less than a month when they moved me to the appetizer line where I was preparing some of their specialty items like crispy Italian nachos, pizzas, and salads. I really enjoyed doing the salads because I could be more creative there, experimenting with matching different colored ingredients with different dressings. It was then, with salads, that I got my first sense of what looks good on a plate. It would be at the sauté station, which I found to be the most difficult, where I learned so much about different flavor and herb combinations for different meats. I really felt the need to give the meats the perfect touch there, especially when it came to grilling everything from fish to lamb to chicken. I also learned so much about different sauces there -- garlic with olive oil, garlic with white wine - and that is where you develop your touch and how your own recipes begin.
You really shot up the ladder at Terilli's in very quick time? I remember that after only five years of being there I became the head-line cook and the night sous chef. I was a real leader on that line. I would end up having a great time at Terilli's for 15 years.
You started to evolve rather quickly at this point, writing your own recipes for instance? Yes, while still at Terilli's, I started to innovate my own recipes, such as a special kind of grilled chicken dish, with red bell peppers and goat cheese on top - and all of it served with this kind of sweet red wine reduction sauce. I was also getting restless with serving the same kind of starch all the time. I wanted to get away from us resorting to either rice or pasta. There had to be different ways we could prepare potatoes. I also was very interested in using different kinds of vegetables as part of more decorative presentation.
You've worked full-time at the Lodge since 2006. What are the special challenges about cooking at a gentleman's club? First off, in a gentleman's club, often times you only have male customers - which is both different and occasionally somewhat challenging. In other places, you can prepare food for the entire family, often for such special occasions as Mother's Day or various birthdays. As the primary customers here, men tend to want us to serve more steaks, whereas women customers mostly prefer to eat salads, pasta, or something generally on the lighter side. Men are real beef lovers.
So how do you deal with that? Well, I try to adopt and incorporate different flavors to the various cuts of meat we serve. I really like stuffing the meat, such as a great rib-eye that might be filled with a combination of jalapenos, cheddar cheese, and cilantro.
Now you also cook for the Lodge's female entertainers. That must bring an extra responsibility as well, in terms of cooking what they want to eat? The dancers definitely like to eat right off of our menu. They do have different dietary needs for sure and we make allowances by not using nearly as much butter in the dishes we make for them. They can eat with the greatest confidence that what we're making for them is healthy. In truth, they mostly want to eat salads, soups, fish and chicken. They do tend to stay away from the big steaks.
I get the sense that your cooking is a big part of the marketing strategy of the Lodge, a big enticement to get customers in? With our specials like Saturday's Date Night Menu, we definitely want people to know that just because we're a gentleman's club, it doesn't mean we only serve appetizers. My boss, Dawn Rizos, who has given me all the tools I need to do the best cooking I can do, clearly wants our customers to be fully satisfied with their experience here and that means bringing in those customers, partially through serving very good food.
After a long day at the Lodge, when you go home, who does most of the cooking? Well, I'm married to a wonderful woman, and we have a 15-year old son - who doesn't like to cook at all -- and a 21-year old daughter, but when I get home it's mostly my wife who cooks. I love it when she makes a Spanish rice dish, along with a really good chicken mole, or tamales. I do eat well at home, that's for sure.
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