Why Chef Akhtar Nawab Tackled Mexican Cuisine

Pork Belly Tacos at La Cenita
Pork belly taco.

"I was at a point where I wasn't sure what was next.... Then this Mexican thing appeared, and it felt right because I needed a change—I needed to learn something new."

Chef Akhtar Nawab at La Cenita
Brent Herrig

New York seems to have been hit with an influx of focus on Mexican cuisine, with the monthly rags giving it sole focus and even the paper of record devoting a whole issue to them. As New Yorkers, we're constantly pestered by outside sources that we don't have "real" Mexican cuisine here (cough, L.A.). Yet no one can deny that what we lack in some traditions we attempt to make up for in innovation, with more and more chefs who are not native to Mexico giving the cuisine their full attention.

Chef Akhtar Nawab is part of that group, focusing on fusing traditional methods with honed culinary skill and a bit of innovation. At the EMM Group's cavernous La Cenita in the Meatpacking District, Nawab turns out inventive ceviches and lightens up dishes he finds traditionally so heavy that afterwards "you can't do much but go home after that—you just pass out." So we asked him what about Mexican cuisine feels like home to him, and how did he get to heading up a Mexican kitchen?

Chef Akhtar Nawab at La Cenita

Where did cooking start for you? My mother's a tremendous cook. I always enjoyed cooking with her, learning how to cook the Indian stuff that I ate every day. We never ate out until I was a late teenager, and when we did it was an occasion because no one ever wanted to go anywhere because of my mom's great cooking.

Do you connect Indian and Mexican cuisines in any way? What does Mexican cuisine do for you now? It's a very tradition-heavy cuisine, and I identify with it because Indian food is similar in that way—there's a lot of history to everything and a lot of care in preparing these simple things. There are people who cook all day for one meal. Mexican cuisine just has a lot of care involved in it, and I appreciate that. The ranchera salsa and a few moles we do are updated a little, but they cook for hours and there's a depth of flavor in that kind of stuff that show what that tradition is all about.

Pork Belly Tacos at La Cenita
Pork belly taco.

Was there a similarity in their complexity as well? I personally wouldn't say cooking Indian food is a simple task. There is. It took a while to get comfortable with some of these ingredients, and a lot of playing around and trying different things or tasting different things to understand what the profiles were or the flavors had to offer, or how they'd react to other things.

The bulk of Mexican food is very simple, but some of the flavors have complex elements. Like dried chipotle chilies are so smoky they're almost like bacon, so just a small amount adds so much complexity to a dish, but they can also be very spicy. So nailing that balance is interesting to me. And guajillo chilies are mild but they're fruity and bright red and they add tremendous color to things. They have a very neutral quality, so we actually infuse our chili oil for the Hamachi with guajillo chilies and chili piquin to achieve that flavor, and I think it's an important element in that dish.

How many chilies do you know how to use now? We use a lot—they're staple ingredients—pasilla, ancho, a lot of chipotle, chili de arbol in one of our salsas, but not that much, habanero, serrano, jalapeno, Fresno, poblano... I love Chipotle more than anything, because I find them to be so versatile—they're great in marinades and salsas, they pair with alcohol very well, they have a lot to offer.

Ceviche at La Cenita

You could have gone into any kind of cuisine after you closed Elettaria. Why this, really? After I closed my own restaurant I took some time off and spent time with my daughter. I didn't know what I was going to do, to be honest, or where I was going to go. I was at a point where I wasn't sure what was next. I had always had a plan or a goal—I think a lot of chefs are like that, they have an agenda or some sort of plan laid out. Then this Mexican thing appeared, and it felt right because I needed a change—I needed to learn something new. I hadn't been in a position where I was learning how to cook something in a long time, and to me that was exciting.

So since you cited Mexican cuisine as being similar to Indian in a way, was exploring this realm comforting then? It didn't feel easy, by any means, but it felt like it made sense in a way. I learned quickly.

Oysters Lopez at La Cenita
Oysters Lopez.

So how, out of all the things you could have chosen to do with this menu, did you focus yourself when creating it? We all agreed it should be big in flavor but not too heavy. Stewed pork in a cochinita is great, but you can't do much but go home after that. You just pass out.

A lot of old timers we speak with talk about longevity in restaurants, but you've shifted between kitchens a good bit. What has that taught you about yourself you might not have learned otherwise? I found I'm committed to cooking. I know that it's taken me a while to understand that—I've been in ownership positions and chef de cuisine positions or whatever—but I've realized that cooking makes me the most happy, and doing as much of it as I can. Obviously you get pulled in different directions all the time, but I've always enjoyed learning new things and trying new cuisines, whatever they may be. I've taken a lot of opportunities that have presented themselves and tried to do what I can at these restaurants to make them my own, whether it was EU or Craftbar or La Esquina. But moving around to learn something new as different opportunities present themselves... I'm comfortable with that. It feels like, here, I have support and a team that is working together to create something bigger. And I think that's exciting.