“There was never any other,” Executive Chef of Mi Vida, Roberto Santibañez, says in his charming, lilting tone. “I was always one of those kids that loved cooking. It was my best pastime, my best game time, my everything.”
When the time came to decide his career path, Chef Santibañez was clear. He went to culinary school (and not just any at that)—Chef Santibañez, a native of Mexico City, spent two years in Paris, graduating from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu.
“Growing up in Mexico, you can get really spoiled,” he laughs. Spoiled with flavors, that is. Despite being in one of the most highly regarded culinary destinations in the world, Chef Santibañez longed for the zest of home. “Why don’t they put a little lime juice on this…a little chili…it’s better!” Those were his thoughts as he was being classically trained. “I came back [to Mexico City] and started doing my own version of Mexican cooking.”
When hearing the term “my own version” from a chef about a particular cuisine, it’s common to think of them as blending flavors and techniques from different cultures together to create a unique signature taste. Not so with Chef Santibañez…
“I like to mix chilies. I like to make salsas with different layers instead of the traditional ones. It’s what I’ve done all my life.” He plays entirely within the space of Mexican cuisine and techniques but in a way that leads friends to describe him as the chef that “introduces people to Mexican food that isn’t really Mexican.”
“We always base ourselves in tradition—and that’s great—but we can do so much better nowadays because we know much more than [our ancestors] did back then. We have incredible techniques and equipment. They didn’t have Vitamix in the past…my grandmother would have loved it! The MAGIC of Vitamix! Sauces are so much smoother now!” [Un-plated’s note: this is not a paid sponsorship for Vitamix. Chef Santibañez genuinely loves it.]
Rather than reinventing the wheel or adjusting recipes to make them more universally palatable, Chef Santibañez is building upon his culture’s existing culinary heritage. In his own words, “Everyone gets involved in this super-intellectual approach but tradition has many interpretations. I think it’s about creating things with respect and knowledge of traditions. It’s about taking tradition and building on it.”
He continues, “I have cookbooks from each and every state of my country…Yucatán…Veracruz…Oaxaca. I study the recipes and their origins. And I think about the science behind them.”
In his early years of being a chef, Santibañez came across a scientist at a conference discussing how chilies hit people differently when dried and when raw. “So, I can make two equally hot salsas, one with green chilies and one with red. One uses dried chilies and the other raw. And, despite being the same heat level, people will have different reactions to the spice because the chili hits different parts of the mouth. So, why not mix them? Make it sparkle!”
With many chefs committed to educating palates on traditional Mexican flavors, Chef Santibañez’s careful approach to pushing boundaries is a captivating contrast.
“I’m careful,” he states. “I don’t want to destroy everything. There are just certain mixtures that are fascinating. Why not create a delicious sauce that’s never been done before but that can clearly be recognized as Mexican?”
Chef Santibañez’s latest concept, Mi Vida, is the embodiment of this furthering of Mexican food. “There’s so much to do still,” he sounds gleeful at the prospect.
His latest efforts have gone into—surprisingly—a Thanksgiving menu. “It started out as a business decision,” he admits, frankly. “Everyone on The Wharf is going to be open. So, I wanted to do something really special.” From there, it turned into an exploration of flavors.
“We’re not going to make them eat mole,” he laughs. “It’s just not what you do on Thanksgiving. I want to do something to incorporate Mexican touches into a traditional Thanksgiving menu.”
He launches into a salivating description of a cranberry sauce recipe in development that incorporates crushed segmented oranges to create a marmalade-like texture. The addition of chipotle peppers provides a hint of smokiness to perfectly highlight the sweetness of the fruit (and now I’m sobbing on the inside at the thought of regular cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving).
Who knows, perhaps a few years from now that cranberry sauce will be a staple in households around New Mexico.
Open Monday-Thursday from 11:30am-11:00pm; Friday from 11:30am-midnight; Saturday from 11am-midnight; Sunday from 10am-10pm